Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com. But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.
Who’s in charge of the English language? Nobody, of course. You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.
Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.
- “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
- “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
- “Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
- “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”
If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong. But English isn’t a set of rules.
At least, not in the sense of “rule” as an explicit regulation enforcing conduct; if we want to use the word “rule”, we need to understand it instead in the sense of a generalization. English operates as – English is – a set of mostly-agreed-upon conventions between speakers and listeners, writers and readers. I suppose that makes writing easier in a way, because it gives you license to violate “rules” when you have a good reason for doing so. But it makes writing considerably harder in a more important way, because you can’t achieve excellent writing by just looking up the rules. Writing well is a complex and challenging goal.
Now, fortunately, things aren’t as dire as they might be. If English isn’t rule-codified, its extensive set of conventions means that isn’t complete anarchy either. Some of those conventions are pretty rigid, and some are looser, and writers should realize that both kinds present hazards.
Here’s a particularly strict convention. “The boy bit the dog” means the boy did the biting to the dog, not the other way around, because in English the subject normally precedes the verb and the object follows it. Attempts to subvert this convention are either misleading or require awkward and convoluted construction; either way, the writing is nearly certain to suffer*. Similarly, the use of an apostrophe in the contraction it’s but not in the possessive its must be about as close to a real rule as we have. Those who violate it will be suspected of sloppiness, ill-education, or worse. (Especially by Lynne Truss.)
In contrast, some conventions are rather weak. What does it mean for a statement to “beg the question”? Purists will insist it means that the statement is a claim that assumes its own truth. Others will use it to mean that the statement raises, or suggests, an obvious question. The latter usage has actually become more common than the “correct” one, but there’s still enough doubt about what a particular writer might mean that it’s difficult to use the phrase clearly. “Beg the question” is in a state of rapid semantic drift. Such instances are common, but while they continue they present hazards to clear communication. Eventually, the confusion gets resolved as we settle on a strong convention, as we’ve done (for example) with decimate (which no longer means to kill one in ten), counterfeit (which no longer means “a genuine copy”), and nice (which no longer means “foolish”). (If you don’t believe me about the pre-drift meanings of these three words, that’s good evidence that their semantic drift is over). The trick, of course, is knowing which conventions are strong enough to require following, which are weak enough to be casually violated, and which are in between and – like “beg the question” – should simply be avoided. Dictionaries and other language books help, but they record conventions, rather than enforcing them, and they tend to lag behind the evolution of language. Distrust anyone who insists that a particular dictionary (or anything else) is the only authority.
So in the absence of rules but the presence of a bewildering spectrum of conventions from strict to anything-goes, what is a writer to do? You can certainly profit from reading books of writing advice (is anybody surprised that I think so?), but maintain a healthy distrust for their most emphatic pronouncements. Books aren’t enough, though; you need two more things.
First, there’s no substitute for acquiring an ear for the language. That’s a vague concept, but what I mean is familiarity with the decisions other writers have made about when to hew to convention, and when to flout it; and experience about when those decisions led to engaging style, and when they led instead to confusion. Reading widely and voraciously is the only way to develop this ear. Read; and notice writing you like, and writing you don’t like, and ask yourself what made it that way and whether you can take advantage of that knowledge. Read our scientific literature, yes; but read other things too – popular science and fiction and newspaper articles and cereal boxes.
Second, you need critics. Every one of us can benefit from hearing what readers think of our writing. Formal peer review provides this, but it’s unwise to fly solo that far. Instead, seek “friendly review” from colleagues, friends, family, or other victims**. And listen to what they have to say: whether you think something is clear, or mellifluous, or clever, is pretty nearly irrelevant. What readers think is what matters, and friendly review can show you that.
I’ve been going on about how we deal with the fact that nobody’s in charge of the English language. Although it might be less important, it’s definitely more interesting to notice just how many people seem either to believe someone is in charge, or to want someone to be. These are the people asking the questions I led off with, or the people offering vociferous – even dogmatic – opinions about their answers. Consider the excellent and entertaining little book Language Myths. It has 21 chapters, each exploring a commonly held myth about languages. Nearly half of those myths boil down to a belief that someone is, or ought to be, in charge of the English language***!
So why this belief in, or yearning for, a language authority? I suspect there are several reasons. First, many of us were taught that such an authority exists – because our teachers were unimaginative, because our teachers had been taught that way themselves, or perhaps because it’s far easier to teach and learn English that way. (Learn the ‘rules’ first; then learn that they aren’t really rules later.) Second, it’s comforting to think that there’s a finite set of rules, and if we could just learn them, we’d have mastered writing. Third, many languages do have bodies that at least pretend to function as authorities over the language (with varying, but generally limited, success). Finally, we’re just used to things working this way: human societies have evolved systems of rules (with authorities to enforce them) for a remarkable range of situations. We’ve probably had to, in order to get along.
So: it would be nice if someone was in charge of the English language. But nobody is. Realizing that is a start – but only a start – toward good writing.
© Stephen Heard May 14, 2018
*^As in Rod Stewart’s tiresomely overplayed hit Maggie May, which includes this clunker of a couplet: “I laughed at all of your jokes/My love you didn’t need to coax.” Was the rhyme really worth that?
**^You can convert them from victims to partners simply by offering to return the favour.
***^Myth 1: The meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change. Myth 3: The media are ruining English. Myth 5: English spelling is kattastroffik. Myth 8: Children can’t speak or write properly any more. Myth 12: Bad grammar is slovenly. Myth 14: Double negatives are illogical. Myth 16: You shouldn’t say “It is me” because “me” is accusative. Myth 17: They speak really bad English down South and in New York City. Myth 20: Everyone has an accent except me. Myth 21: America is ruining the English language. (The other chapters mostly deal with supposed differences between languages, and if anything are even more interesting.)