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Review of  Verbal Hygiene

Reviewer: Noriko Watanabe
Book Title: Verbal Hygiene
Book Author: Deborah Cameron
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.2954

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The volume reviewed here is a new edition of Cameron’s (C hereafter) book, “Verbal Hygiene”, originally published in 1995. As the author mentions in the Forward of the new edition, the volume’s main text includes no significant revisions. Added to the old edition are a foreword (17 pages) and an afterword (26 pages), which give an updated frame to this classic 17 years after its first publication.

The Foreword begins with C’s definition of verbal hygiene: “the motley collection of discourses and practices through which people attempt to ‘clean up’ language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility” (p.vii). C emphasizes that verbal hygiene is neither wrong nor right, but exists because the very notion of language and metalinguistic awareness of language as a system calls for the practice of imposing normativity. C maintains that, although there have been changes that pertain to language since the last edition was published (e.g. the emergence of digital experts on language on the net and the lessened authority of printed media), her thesis has not changed since 1995. In fact, she has learned that verbal hygiene is even more pervasive than she originally thought.

Chapter 1 lays out the issues that C discusses in the subsequent chapters. One issue is the problems of prescriptivism. According to C, prescriptivism is a type of verbal hygiene. Linguists view all varieties of English as equally appropriate for certain contexts, and they do not necessarily make value judgments about regional and social varieties. At the same time, however, C points out that the philosophy of “leave your language alone” is also ideological in itself. C sees both of the positions as not escaping normativity. Attention to normativity is often magnified because linguistic order stands for order of a different kind. For example, prescriptivism is deemed important and necessary because it is often claimed that communication will break down if it is neglected, and if communication breaks down, the unity of a nation is threatened. The verbal hygiene of prescriptivism represents, in C’s view, fear of fragmentation.

Chapter 2 points out that style in English can be hyperstandardized and commodified, and that the ultimate goal of the verbal hygiene of style is not uniformity and consistency, but financial and professional satisfaction. Through her analysis of editorial practices of English-language newspapers and publishers, as well as the genealogy of the modern writing style, C shows that “stylistic values are symbolic of moral, social, ideological and political values” (p. 77).

Chapter 3 reviews the grammar reform and the “hysteria” that surrounded the Education Reform Act of 1988 in the United Kingdom. C considers the grammar debate to be a case of moral panic, that is, the phenomenon of a social issue suddenly receiving intense scrutiny accompanied with attributions of moral significance that project a sense of urgency and distraught emotion. C points out that conflicting emotions surface in debates about grammar: failure and humiliation on one hand, and nostalgia about the good old days of order and certainty on the other. According to C, grammar stands for moral values, and the debate is generated out of anxiety over the state of British culture in the context of emergent pluralism. Conservatives have taken the opportunity to address the fear and anxiety about the state of British culture through control of the English language and portrayal of the development of diversity in linguistic matters as fragmentation of the nation. The stakes in the debate have been multiplied by the emotional and moral implications that are linked to political and ideological issues. In the debate in question, language ultimately served to unite conservatives who feared losing support because of their own fragmentation as a political party. Here, C proposes that linguists should be involved in such a debate by proposing better alternatives based on critical examinations of standards and values.

Chapter 4 focuses on concerns over political correctness as acts of verbal hygiene. C discusses various debates over political correctness, including feminist crusades for non-sexist language and controversy over racially discriminatory expressions. In C’s view, political correctness politicizes language, and makes it impossible not to offend someone; liberals accuse people of violating the contract that there is a fixed, word-to-world relationship, and conservatives accuse political correctness of abusing and prescribing our relationship with language by restricting freedom of word meaning. What is behind the tension between political correctness and its opponents is the question of how a society with diverse points of view and customs can communicate and possibly share common cultures. This chapter introduces the idea that a perfect language, in which everyone agrees on what certain words mean, is almost impossible. As a result of indeterminacy of meaning, it all comes down to whose meaning prevails and who can be the authority of word semantics.

Chapter 5 examines advice to women on how to use language. The coaching literature teaches women to be more “effective” workers, leaders, and partners in relationships with men. C analyzes the emergence of advice to women as essentially portraying women as being different from men. It assumes individual women should change their ways of behaving and use language so that they can be more like men, or get along with men, for whom there is no need for change. Aside from the coaching literature, the author’s dissatisfaction comes from popular literature that is marketed as books on communication between men and women. As an example, C points out that the readers of Debora Tannen’s popular book “You Just Don’t Understand” liked reading it not because it will change the way women speak, or challenge the dichotomy of women and men’s speech, but because they could find themselves in the book and indulge in the camaraderie that stories about frustrating communication with men bring.

Chapter 6 inquires about the functions of verbal hygiene in society. The intensity with which verbal hygiene is pursued raises questions about the motives for the quest. C traces the motives to a desire for order and a fear of disorder. She further states that it is not possible to eliminate verbal hygiene, but it is possible to tame irrational impulses. C is critical of linguists’ views that all language usages are equal and that it is natural to have language change because these views certainly ignore ubiquitous acts of verbal hygiene, such as correcting grammar and attaching social meanings to certain forms. In C’s view, rationalization of correctness and normativity is inevitable, and thus, she questions why linguists assert that such indexical meanings do not exist.

In the Afterword, C comments on developments since the last edition was published in 1995: technological advances, which have resulted in the proliferation of non-standard language in the digital world; a semantic shift of the term “political correctness”; brain-based accounts of gender differences, which C terms “neurosexism”; and acts of verbal hygiene that globalization brings.


“Verbal Hygiene” is a major work in sociolinguistics that addresses the critical issue of the relationship between English and its users. It documents a wide range of activities with which English users in the United Kingdom attempt to control others to conform to their ideal ways of using the language. In turn, verbal hygiene is motivated by concerns of a different dimension, such as political stance or fear of disorder. The author gives careful thought to case studies of language-related arguments and the politics that underpin and fuel emotionally charged responses to them. Much of C’s analyses are applicable to discursive interventions at the metalinguistic and metapragmatic levels in other modern societies with standardized language, printed media, and formal education. For this reason, the theoretical implications of the book go beyond English. Verbal hygiene is closely related to research on language ideologies (Silverstein 1979, Schieffelin, Woolard & Kroskrity 1998) and, to some extent, Language Management Theory (Jernudd & Neustupný 1987, Spolsky 2009), as C acknowledges in the Foreword of the new edition. While the literature on language ideologies also describes and discusses heated arguments over languages in which such ideologies are emergent, C’s book does an excellent job of capturing the psychological aspects of the hygienic acts and the fastidiousness which originates in emotional linkage to language. Thus, C’s work highlights how and why arguments about language often turn into emotionally intense bickering.

One drawback of the way C analyzes verbal hygiene phenomena is that she tends to focus heavily on explicitly articulated language ideologies and metalinguistic commentaries. Even though C says that she is interested in the public’s concerns over language, many of the examples come from published material and comments of experts in the media, such as editors, authors, activists, educators, politicians, newspaper columnists, and other linguists. At times, more detailed data that can support C’s points seem to be missing. For example, when she discusses a dispute over a particular incident at an American university regarding whether the use of the words “water buffalo” was racist, C interprets and imagines what the offended party must have thought instead of finding support from newspaper articles or interviews (pp. 157-158). In addition, there is no reference given for the incident, and it is not clear how C learned about it.

There are several interesting theoretical questions the book raises that are still relevant 17 years after its original publication. The first question is whether sociolinguistics should be socially engaged. C explicitly questions the attitudes of linguists who refrain from making judgments on emergent language matters because of their opposition to what she calls “prescriptivism”. To C, it is a contradiction that linguists oppose prescriptivism, while subscribing to the principle of non-involvement as if it were a prescribed rule for them. In his review of C’s 1995 edition, Milroy (1997) states that C’s characterization of linguistics here is not fair because the field of linguistics is populated with scholars whose academic interests are diverse, and because those who study various subfields of linguistics are not engaged in norm-making, nor are they interested in making prescriptive comments to the public on issues of language. Milroy may have a point about the limitations of C’s view of linguistics, but the question here is the extent to which linguistics should be constructed as socially relevant and whether linguists should be engaged with the public when language is at the center of controversy in the political arena. C is dissatisfied with and disagrees with the vision of linguistics as it is. In other words, C would like to propose a change in what linguists think they should do and urge them to reexamine how linguistics should be conceived in relation to the public and its concerns. That is an ambitious enterprise.

Although linguists should not forget nor choose to ignore that their research agendas exist within a broader intellectual frame, including the value system on which society is built, how linguists engage with society is complicated. One major point C makes is that she believes in “rational” and “informed” debates about language matters and that linguists should offer input to debates over language issues. As she so clearly points out, however, arguments about language tend to be linked to moral values, and if this recognition of what language ideologies are is taken seriously, there should be no surprise that the definition of ‘rational’ has extremely fuzzy boundaries. In fact, at the end of the present edition, she remarks that her confidence in the public engaging in rational discussions on politicized linguistic issues is waning, to some extent (pp. 262-263).

“Verbal Hygiene” is indeed thought-provoking, but there is one issue C discusses in her Afterword that could have been developed further, possibly into an additional chapter for the new edition: the issue of the role of English itself in the increasingly multilingual, borderless world. In her Afterword, she presents stimulating discussions on how verbal hygiene is used to manage problems that are brought on by diversity and globalization. For example, C makes a reference to TV commentator and historian David Starkey’s linking of speaking Jafaican, a variety of English originating in multicultural neighborhoods in London, to a 2011 riot. In addition, C discusses that speaking English is taken as a proof of subscribing to certain political views and cultural values: English is constructed and conceived as unifying the country, being modern, democratic, and rational, while other languages such as Arabic are implicated as “irrational” (pp. 239-243). This is reminiscent of the issues she examined in Chapter 3, but is reinterpreted in the emergent context of the post-9/11 era. C’s closer examination of such issues is likely to be productive.

Overall, “Verbal Hygiene” successfully makes its case that people’s involvement with language matters is indeed unavoidable and that verbal hygiene is a pervasive phenomenon. The second edition is merited because the theoretical issues the book raises are still relevant and worth discussing, although the present reviewer would have liked C to have added a chapter on English in the age of globalization and plurilingualism.


Jernudd, B. H. & Neustupný, J. V. 1987. “Language plannning: For whom?” In L. Laforge (ed.), Actes du Colloque international sur l'aménagement linguistique / Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Language Planning. Québec: Les Presses de L'Université Laval, 69–84.

Milroy, James. 1997 Review of “Verbal Hygiene” by Deborah Cameron 1995, London: Routledge, Journal of Sociolinguistics, 1/1, 127–133.

Schieffelin, Bambi.B., Woolard, Kathryn.A., & Kroskrity, Paul.V. (eds.) 1998 Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 1979 “Language structure and linguistic ideology.” The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels. ed. Paul R. Clyne, William F. Hanks, and Carol L. Hofbauer, Chicago Linguistic Society. 193–247.

Spolsky, B. 2009. Language Management. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Noriko Watanabe holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and has taught Japanese and English at universities in the United States and Japan. Her research interests include writing systems, language ideologies, and narrative discourse.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415695992
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