Chapter 8. Jane Austen and the prescriptivists
In contradistinction to interpretations that have positioned Austen as the
epitome of a fixed and finished style, in this chapter I position her as an author
who was writing at a time of considerable linguistic and stylistic change. In
order to do so, I take both a micro- and a macro-linguistic approach to her
writing. First, I focus on one specific grammatical feature that is highly salient
to some modern readers, that of concordance with either, neither and none.
Second, I examine the metalinguistic comments made by characters and narrators
in her novels and consider the extent to which these provide evidence for
Austen’s own attitudes. Finally, I explore whether or not it is true that Austen is
unconcerned with nonstandard forms of language, comparing her practices to
those of her contemporaries. Overall I argue that Austen was writing at a time
when both language attitudes and language practices were in flux, and that as an
author her style was shaped by the changes in progress, while she in turn made
use of changing language attitudes for purposes of characterisation.