Fromkin's Introduction to Linguistics says:

Language purists sometimes rail against back-formations and cite enthuse and liaise [from enthusiasm and liaison) as examples of language corruption. However, language is not corrupt; it is adaptable and changeable. Don’t be surprised to discover in your lifetime that shevelled and chalant have infiltrated the English language (from disheveled and nonchalant) to mean “tidy” and “concerned,” and if it happens do not cry “havoc” and let slip the dogs of prescriptivism; all will be well.

What does "the dogs of prescriptivism" mean?

  • 1
    This doesn't address the question, but in connection with the quote I can't resist to quote P.G. Wodehouse: He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. Commented Jun 25 at 8:27
  • "rather, let slip the lyrebirds of descriptivism" Commented Jun 26 at 3:04

4 Answers 4


It’s an analogy to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war,” a line from Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

See The dogs of war (phrase) on Wikipedia.

The meaning is that these changes in language are to be expected and are not cause for creating dissent and argument among people.

  • 1
    what does dog mean?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24 at 5:06
  • 14
    @Tim dog - canine animal, four legs, hairy, often called "Spot"
    – Dale M
    Commented Jun 24 at 5:21
  • 1
    @DaleM what does "dog" mean here?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24 at 7:13
  • 16
    @Tim The ancient Romans used literal dogs in warfare. The line can also be understood to relate soldiers to savage dogs. If you google the phrase "dogs of war" you will find plenty of discussion; it's a common quotation.
    – aantia
    Commented Jun 24 at 9:21
  • 9
    I also understand it as a hyperbolic jab at the combative attitude of the prescriptivists. Commented Jun 24 at 10:34

"dogs of X" is a metaphor that refers to the strength and stubborness that hunting and fighting dogs exhibit. As Xanne mentions, we get this from Shakespeare's "dogs of war" metaphor, which means the chaos and death that results from war.

In your quote, "dogs of prescriptivism" refers to people who stubbornly believe that language should be used only as described in grammars and dictionaries, rather than accepting that it changes naturally. When new words or uses arise, these are not necessarily errors that must be eradicated -- if the language community understands and accepts them, it's just evolution. The sentence you ask about is advising you not to be one of these pedants.

  • 3
    In other words, don't be excessively DOGmatic (ducking).
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 24 at 17:11
  • Or (super)catty
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 24 at 17:17

Others have already explained the cry havoc part of the sentence. Prescriptivism is, according to Wikipedia, the establishment of rules defining the preferred usage of language. Prescription usually implies some sort of legitimate authority, e.g. a medical degree. In the case of language, it can imply that the preferred use is superior.

All languages evolve over time. This is not a process that can be controlled easily, if at all. One of the known ways language evolves is that sometimes, nouns get used as verbs. That process is called verbing, e.g. Googling. Funnily enough, William Shakespeare himself verbed a lot of nouns. Some of the evolutions can be annoying, but inevitably they'll be annoying to only some people. For example, I hate a lot of business jargon, mainly due to my personal philosophies. However, the fact is that it's used and understood in the business world.

In any case, the author is either arguing against excessive prescriptivism, or possibly they are arguing against the concept of prescriptivism.


Rabid proponents of prescriptivism.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .