Who’s in charge of the English language?

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.)

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11 thoughts on “Who’s in charge of the English language?

  1. Gary

    I entered this comment once before and things went fubar so I apologize if it shows up twice.

    Interesting post, I’m not sure that you stated it explicitly, but clearly the purpose of rules is to reduce ambiguity in meaning. This is especially important in scientific writing, which is more boring than expository writing by necessity. But as an editor I am surprised by how many mss. come in with simple grammatical errors or misuse that is confusing. For example the use of while rather than although. While should only be used where time is involved because it is potentially confusing when used as although. “John argued there are no real species while Scotty argued that species do exist.” Are John and Scotty arguing at the same time or are they arguing different positions? With although there is no ambiguity. The same problem exists with the use of since in place of because. Obviously, the important point is clarity. If there is no real issue with clarity then the writer has committed a venial sin and not a mortal one (starting a sentence with an abbreviation doesn’t really affect clarity although I can’t bring myself to do it). But using while for although may be a mortal sin. cheers mate, g2

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  2. Isabel Gibson

    Great piece. As an editor, I had an answer to the question of who was in charge of the English in our technical sales proposals: L’autorite, c’est moi. Beyond that, I claimed no authority. As for rapid semantic drift, wave goodbye to the old-fashioned meaning of “take,” for which new speakers have completely substituted “bring.” The logically associated changes to “come” and “go” are now in process.

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  3. Brian McGill

    Fun post. You briefly mention other languages with regulators. I think especially of the Académie française. While you are absolutely right they often look rather pitifully reactionary, formally endorsing things that have already happened among the speakers of French, it is also true that they have some success. There is much more uniformity and resulting lower mutation rate in French than English. Which then raises the question of whether that is a good thing. You can make a pretty good case that at least part of why English has risen to the dominance it has is because of its lack of it among the most protean and adaptable of languages, going back to its at partial ingestion of French with the conquering of the British Isles by William in 1066 and a higher rate of ingestion of foreign words from other sources ever since and a glib willingness to create new words as technology evolves.

    Personally I’ve always found the most useful framing of language is as a convention negotiated among its users. So in that sense it is no different from say the standards for electrical plugs or the Python programming language (which both have rigid centralization) or conventions on door sizes (which are informal and based on frequency dependence) or the BASIC programming language (which has dozens of versions).

    The nice thing about viewing language as a shared convention is it suggests my relationship to it as a writer. If my main focus is to be clearly understood, then I had best follow conventions. If my main focus is to be creative and evocative and attract attention, then some well placed nonconformity works nicely (maybe even in Rod Stewart’s Maggie Mae)

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Brian, glad you enjoyed this one. I was briefly deciding to object to your point about Maggie May, and then realized you’re actually getting on to something I’ve been meaning to write a post about. If you’re creative, it’s almost sure that some readers will “get” it and some won’t. Some will like Maggie May, and some will hate it. So is that tradeoff OK? Or do we write without creativity because we refuse to make that tradeoff? I’m probably explaining this poorly, so will have to write up the full post!

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      1. Brian McGill

        Interesting point. I agree with you that Maggie may is no Shakespeare. And I think Shakespeare wrote without having to make a trade-off (although millions of high school students forced to read Shakespeare may disagree). But it does raise an interesting question of where to fall on that trade-off for us mere mortal writers.

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  4. Michael Kokkinn

    It’s a bewildering lesson, particularly for those students who have English as a second language. Having been ‘trained’ to write the bare English of Science, I now find that I am in need of re-education. For example, the use of similies. In my retirement, I have taken to writing novels set in universities and, initially, avoided all flowery writing. In my recent effort, I shed my sterile cloak and took to the task of writing good similies. The first consequence was to realise how pervasive cliches are. The challenge is to write something that delights the reader by presenting a novel image (you feel a small thrill) which is within their experience. For example, you can’t say: “She walked up the hill like a physicist,” because who would know how a physicist walks? However, you could say: “… like a lame dog.” So, here’s a fun challenge for you. Try and write some novel similies.

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  5. Ahgf778

    “My love you didn’t need to coax” is “My love, you didn’t need to coax”. “My love” being the woman he is speaking to and “coax” being used intransitively.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Huh – I hadn’t thought of that, and it’s grammatically sensible. I might buy it – except that listening to the lyric, Stewart pauses after “jokes”, but not after “my love” – as he would, I think, if he were intending it as you suggest. In addition – from the rest of the lyrics, I don’t think he’d address Maggie as “my love” – he’s not at all pleased with her. (See brief interview here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek4cUOlxwgQ), and now I know WAY too much about Rod Stewart.) So count me a skeptic.

      And I just listened to “Maggie May”, TWO different performances, to check. The sacrifices I make! 🙂

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  6. Pingback: Fun and Easy Ways to Learn English – Teachers thoughts, quotes and dreams

  7. Pingback: Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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