The commonly accepted rules of english, for better or worse

July 29th, 2009

There is a certain breed of person, virulent online, that feels an uncontrollable urge to correct the grammar, pronunciation, mechanics, spelling, and general use of their language. They must think everyone should adhere to one set of rules for communicating. Usage of ‘whom’ is tantamount and all that.

However, rules of language change all the time. It’s not that they’re meant to be broken* but that subtle changes to how words are pronounced, spelled, even located in a sentence slowly move through a group of speakers. Sometimes it’s limited to a small subset, like a region or a subculture (like the Favrd Crowd). This is where I think a cognitive dissonance emerges within some people that compel them to get irate over perceived improper language usage. On the one hand, we need a set of rules to govern our methods of communication to decrease statement ambiguity and improve understanding; and yet sometimes the rules are accidentally broken, improperly learned, or otherwise distorted and somehow spread like a meme** so that to the users of the new rules they sound correct. I suspect that I regularly misuse ‘am’ and ‘are’ but I stick with whatever sounds best to me (so far no one’s called me on it).

I’m not suggesting there is a relativism to language. Language needs a commonly accepted set of guidelines for written and spoken communication lest society and even thoughts become meaningless. But the guidelines can’t possibly be set by any authoritative source; rather they are set by a specific group of speakers and accepted as soon as a new rule is understood. Most people understand ‘lol’ when spoken out loud – but that took years of communicating online with an ever-widening group of users.

Look at it this way: 200 years ago, no single person or organization decided that english speakers living in North America should have a unique pronunciation and subtly different set of rules for spelling and grammar than english speakers living in the British Isles. The natural change of guidelines that I described in the previous paragraph moved along separate paths. Granted, the rules for American english were standardized for many speakers with the arrival of Webster’s Dictionary – but the change had already happened***.

So, here’s what I’m trying to say: the next time you feel the need to correct someone’s use of language, consider your audience. They may be using a different dialect; those aren’t limited by geography anymore. If you can understand what they’re saying and they understand you, than you’re still using the same language. That’s the beauty of humanity’s greatest invention.

*I hope that sometime soon people will stop thinking that every rule in life is ‘meant to be broken.’ That kind of thinking is causing a breakdown of society in ways that remind me more of the period after the fall of Rome rather than the Free Love era of the sixties (and that didn’t turn out well either). I suspect that this is one of those situations where the language is affecting how we think.

**Maybe the spread of language rules are memes. The definition of a meme is still quite broad.

***How verbal American english diverged from standard english is still quite unknown. We’re not even sure how Americans sounded when Noah Webster published the first edition of his dictionary. Perhaps changes in speech will happen more slowly now that we have methods of recording how we sound? It’s certainly not slowing the change in written english.

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