There is a lot of talk these days about Grammar Nazis and the Grammar Police. Apparently they are creeping in everywhere, spoiling everyone’s fun by insisting we all mind our use of language and waffling on about clarity. There are several difficult underlying questions here, so here comes a series of articles.
The first question is: What is correct?
The French have the Academy to pronounce on how the language is to be used. English has never this approach. There was an attempt to go down that road, but it never got off the ground. Now English has spread all over the world & has developed different varieties like the US & Australian versions it seems hugely unlikely that this position will change.
Simplistically, it would be convenient to have one source of guidance accepted by all. The downside is a loss of flexibility. English has grown spontaneously, keeping up with cultural & technological changes at a natural speed. It has not been regulated by a committee’s timetable. This has allowed interesting idiosyncrasies to creep into the language, making it richer.
We have various tomes like Fowler’s to guide us. They have been put together by keen & well meaning people who have the resources or contacts to get their work published. These authorities were sometimes self appointed, & in modern terms formed an unregulated industry.
Criticism of these guides is difficult to assess. For example it is thought that the “rule” that thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition originates from Robert Lowth’s “A Short Guide to English Grammar”, which was published in 1762. Some say that because we know of no earlier reference we have proof that Rev. Lowth made it up, therefore it isn’t really a rule, therefore we can ignore it. So how do we know that he wasn’t merely summarising common practice at the time, & his predecessors thought the point wasn’t worth mentioning, because it is obvious to everyone?
We will never know the answer to that one.
Grammar is an art, not a science. Fundamentally it seems that we need to go with the majority view when assessing correctness. Which isn’t always as easy as it sounds, is it? But that is one of the ways we can tell if there is a problem. Ugly, cumbersome language should never be seen as correct, because it can be improved. Surely something that can be improved may be adequate, but it can’t be correct?
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