How Our English Teachers Lied To Us

Heil SpellCheck

Before reading this post, you need to know what linguistic prescription is.  Well, not actually BEFORE reading it, because I’m, in fact, just about to tell you what it is.  Despite the term conjuring strange mental images of being sent home from the doctor’s office with two hardbacks and directions to “read two and call in the morning”, linguistic prescription actually refers to the decisions of a final authority on what is and what is not proper usage of a language.

This dubious honor falls to prescriptive bodies.  The French, for example, have the Acadamie Francaise, and the ‘four immortals’, to tell them what correct French is.  So who is the prescriptive body for the English language?

Well, as recent research has led me to depressingly discover, there isn’t one.  The English language has been left to fend for itself like a red-headed orphan on the streets of Old London.  Well what about dictionaries and thesauruses you ask?  Strunk’s Elements of Style and the A.P.’s Stylebook?  No, sadly these don’t count as linguistic prescription.  These are linguistic DEscription – that is, they tell us how the language IS used currently, now how it SHOULD be used.  What about the Queen’s English Society, I hear you asking (ok, maybe not)?  Well, they tried to be a prescriptive body.  But it turns out they were just pretentious douchebags.Why does all this matter?  Well, as you may realize from the graphic above, I’m a bit of a grammar nazi.  Exactingly proper English is important to me, and it always has been.  It should be.  It’s my mother-tongue after all.  And it’s important to me because I’ve seen the beauty that can be created with finely crafted phrases and adeptly arranged alliteration.  I’ve also seen that horrors that can arise when the English language is mistreated, abused, and generally beaten to death (thanks largely in part to Facebook).

It’s not that I demand exacting grammar to make myself feel superior.  I genuinely love the language.  I regularly consult dictionaries and thesauruses alike; I own the A.P. Stylebook and am quite happy to just sit and read about the proper usage of parentheses.  And when I see glaringly “WRONG” usage of the language (“We went two they’re house”), I have an immediate, real and visceral reaction.  It annoys the hell out of me.

But now I come to find out that “correct English” DOES NOT EXIST.  All those rules my English teachers drilled into me over the years – don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t split your infinitives, don’t dangle prepositions, hyphenate compound adjectives – all of them are meaningless.  Because the correct way to use the English language is whatever way we happen to be collectively using it.

Now, all those times that I’ve stalwartly corrected random people on their atrocious grammar, I’m less the defender of what is Right and Beautiful and Proper (linguistically speaking), and more Tevye the Milkman, standing alone in a field crying “TRADITIOOOOOON!”.  I have no leg to stand on, no authority to back me up, and pretty soon “should of, could of, and would of” will be correct and proper usage.

But, like Tevye the Milkman, in the end I find myself more or less accepting of all this, and in fact, I’m a little excited by it.  The reason is that, in the absence of definite rules, the usage of the language becomes much more of an art form.  Also, I realize that, as a writer, it gives me more leeway than I previously felt I had to bend, shape, create, and yes, occasionally abuse, the English language.

If all of the above was meaningless and boring for you, don’t worry, it wasn’t written for you.  But if you’re a writer or grammar nazi, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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