Proper Words in Proper Places

Meditations on the English language

"Have the Rules Changed?"

How speaking well is like dressing well.

One of the things that prompted me to write The Lexicographer’s Dilemma was a series of questions, all variations on a theme, I received by E-mail. My on-line Guide to Grammar and Style means a lot of people write me out of the blue asking for writing advice on language-related matters.

A standard question takes this form: “When I was in school, Sister Mary Martha taught me such-and-such. Now I see everyone writes so-and-so. Have the rules changed?”

It sounds like a reasonable question, but it’s just about impossible to answer. The problem is that “the rules” (as most people understand them) aren’t spelled out anywhere, so there’s no simple way to tell whether they’ve changed -- and there’s certainly no simple way to change them by a majority vote.

The fact -- disconcerting to some, liberating to others -- is that there’s no “official” set of rules for the English language. Nowhere in the English-speaking world does a duly appointed committee of sages meet to discuss the finer points of English usage and vote on the correct answer. When we talk about “proper” English, we’re really talking about the collective habits of the hundreds of millions of people who speak the language -- their collective preferences, prejudices, hangups, pet peeves, and superstitions.

This doesn’t mean, though, that it’s a free-for-all. Samuel Johnson, the guy I’ve studied most, wrote in 1779 that “Language is the dress of thought.” The metaphor is often overextended and poorly applied, but there’s a lot to be said for it. I’ll take the metaphor in one direction: the “rules” of language are like the rules of dress. And just as no committee votes to decide which colors go with which, or how wide a tie should be, though of course some people are more influential than others, so no official panel decides what the language should be, though some people and institutions have a disproportionate degree of influence.

The clothing metaphor helps to explain a few other things about what’s proper in language. There are some things in dress that are obviously wrong, things that everyone admits to be wrong -- if you wear your underwear over your head, for instance, or your socks on your hands. In the same way, there are some things in the language that every native speaker agrees are simply and unambiguously wrong.

But just as, in clothing, there’s a wide range of possibilities that are suitable in different contexts -- you might strive for formality in one social setting; in another, you might be content to let it all hang out -- so, in language, there are situations where formality is appropriate, but there are others where the traditional rules really don’t apply. Following all the rules in the traditional grammar book in an informal discussion can look every bit as ridiculous as wearing a tuxedo to a barbecue.

This is where the field of sociolinguistics is most interesting, and it’s one of the many places where the study of language and the study of psychology overlap. Sociolinguistics is the study of the ways in which social norms, contexts, expectations, and constraints determine what sort of language is appropriate. In this blog I’ll be drawing on explanations from sociolinguistics over and over again in discussions of what’s right and wrong in language. The argument I’ll make repeatedly is that good English is English that has its desired effect on an audience. Often that’s English that follows the traditional rules from the grammar books, but that’s not always the case.

The moral of the story: the only way to come to know whether something is good English is to know the way it’s going to play in a social setting.

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Jack Lynch teaches English at Rutgers University and is the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma.

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