Who gets to decide what proper usage and grammar is? You? Why should I believe YOU?

In America, we have a proud and defiant tradition of resisting authority. It’s not at all obvious that you should obey the instructions of some “cranky grammarian” just because he has a regular forum for his views.

In fact, this question—“Who gets to decide about grammar?”—has been the center of the target in a long-standing dispute about language: the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. This struggle is mostly waged in academic halls, but now and then, it engages public attention, often when dictionaries issue new editions.

  • Descriptivists argue that dictionaries and grammar guides should collect the way the people actually use words, without making judgments about correctness. In their view, it’s perfectly okay—valuable, even—for a dictionary to include the word ain’t, or to add the latest popular Internet slang, or to say that one meaning of the word literally is “figuratively or metaphorically,” because those are all examples of how English is truly used. In summary: English is a living language that constantly changes, and we must adapt to today’s words, meanings, and grammar.
  • Prescriptivists believe that dictionaries and other reference works have an obligation to mark the acknowledged boundaries of English by pointing out when usage isn’t considered standard. Sure, prescriptivists say, languages change over time, but if something is not yet fully accepted as conventional English, it’s important to tell potential users that a word may be obsolete; limited to a region, dialect, or subculture; slang; or roundly rejected by a panel of usage experts.

Steps Beyond the Dictionary

Every dictionary will express its editor’s viewpoint on the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. But English is more than the static word lists trapped in dictionaries. For grammar and usage, the equivalent references are the stylebooks maintained by various publishing organizations. Many newspapers, for instance, follow the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook. The University of Chicago publishes the Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in the book publishing industry. Many academic papers follow the rules established by the Modern Language Association (MLA). I’ve always been partial to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.

You know what? Each of these sets of rules flatly contradicts all the others at one point or another. And yet the editors of each stylebook can cite a long list of historical examples to show that esteemed authors preferred the usage rules this book favors. We have a case of many emperors issuing contradictory laws: the result is anarchy.

Does the English Language Exist?

So, what does it mean when the very best experts we can find can’t agree on how words should be defined and used? I think that we can draw three important conclusions:

  • There’s no such thing as definitive English. No one individual—nope, not even a grumpy content editor for the best U.S. web marketing company—has the exclusive right to determine what is or is not good grammar and usage.
  • Nevertheless, chaos does not rule. Most people who have made a serious study of English will agree on the rules of grammar most of the time. You can make an analogy with a map of a partially explored land. Some of the borderlands may be fuzzy, but there really is a discrete English language that is our common heritage.
  • In the end, English belongs to its users. If you’re a writer with a special fondness for run-on sentences, then you’re free to use them and to garner support from other writers. Perhaps you’ll be so persuasive that run-ons will become conventional English usage a generation from now. Perhaps you’ll be dismissed as a crackpot. But it’s your language, your freedom of expression, and your opportunity to try to rewrite the rules.

Ultimately, then, those are my credentials too. I’m a writer, a lover of English, and someone who has taken the time to study grammar and usage enough to be able to teach others. I will necessarily be taking stands on issues that do not have universal agreement. Readers who disagree are welcome to respond by adding comments to blog postings, clicking on my contact information, or by reaching out to the Foster Web Marketing content team by phone or email. We always welcome the vigorous and lively exchange of viewpoints.