Passions flare up around the use and “misuse” of prescriptive rules. Where there is variation in language use, language judgment usually follows—attaching value judgment to linguistic variants forms the foundation of prescriptive ideology in English. Prescriptive attitudes prevail among speakers and writers of English, who feel some pressure to use these forms to avoid a negative judgment. This study surveyed American English speakers using Mechanical Turk to determine which types of rules—spelling, syntactic, morphological, and lexical—bother people the most and inspire the harshest judgments when violated. The surveys asked participants to identify a violated prescriptive rule in a sentence, found using the magazine and newspaper registers of the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and then to indicate how much they were bothered by the violation. Results indicated that lexical rules separating subtle semantic differences—i.e. farther vs. further, comprise vs. compose—tend to be less bothersome and less recognizable than other types of rules. However, the type of category that a prescriptive rules falls under does not seem to explain why some rules are more bothersome or recognizable than others. It may be possible to generalize by assuming that lexical prescriptive rules will be less important to a general educated American audience than spelling or grammar rules, and that nonstandard dialectal forms will be even more bothersome. However, the ability to generalize these results is limited: there is some evidence for a “pet-peeve” effect. Individuals seem to simply be bothered by different rules, without strong patterns showing some types of rules sharply more important than others. Additionally other prescriptive rules, including those regarding nauseous and dove as the past tense of dive, were more recognizable and bothersome in their prescribed form than their proscribed, providing evidence for semantic shifts.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



Date Submitted


Document Type





prescriptivism, descriptivism, botheration, language judgment, standard English



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Linguistics Commons