It has happened to everyone. You are in the middle of making some point or other, when your interlocutor stops you to point out that you’ve just misused the English language. Your friend, co-worker, or mother stands opposite you, smug and benevolent, explaining how you ought not end a sentence with a preposition. Or how “grow” isn’t a transitive verb, so you can’t actually “grow your business.”
It happens most often with grammar and vocabulary, although sometimes you get the odd pronunciation hound. But the truth is, we’re all guilty at some time or other of correcting others’ usage. So why do we do it—and why are we wrong to do so?
The most obvious answer is that people love to tell others what to do, and we all love being right. But there’s something deeper going on, even if we’re rarely aware of it. Most people have an instinct that language is a symbol of more than just how much grammar you know. It’s a major indicator of wealth, education, class, ethnicity, race, and region. In fact, it’s once of the best indicators there is. While this might seem obvious, it wasn’t until the 1960s that linguists began systematically exploring whether it was indeed true.
William Labov, the father of sociolinguistics, studied the way “R’s” were pronounced by sales clerks in three department stores in New York City. He found that at the high-end store, Saks, clerks used fully pronounced “R’s” when saying “fourth floor.” The middle-level store, Macy’s, used it far less, and the low-end store, Klein’s, used it the least. Use of “R” turned out to be a major indicator of socioeconomic class in New York at the time.
The last 50 years have seen the field widen to examine every aspect of language (vocabulary, grammar, accent, style) and every possible indication of prestige or group membership. From the famous “jocks and burnouts” study by Penelope Eckert, to codeswitching with French and Arabic (mixing two languages), the fact is, language use matters.
The amateur grammarian senses this. They realize on some level that whether or not they are more educated than you, or are wealthy or from a “good” family, they can wield language and its instruction to elevate themselves and gain ground. By correcting others’ language use, they are projecting their own prestige, real or imagined. After all, they know the “correct” way to speak. You, apparently, do not.
Living Languages Change
Yet their efforts are foolhardy because of two important factors: language change and the difference between writing and speech. First, let’s deal with language change. Purists love to rail against the erosion of our language. They warn us of the impending doom of English as we know it, and perhaps even civilization itself, because no one is using the relative pronoun “whom” any more, or because we have a persistent tendency to create verbs out of nouns (“to Google” wasn’t always a verb).
But the purists are wrong to treat language as a closed system of rules and words. Language is a living thing because it’s spoken by living creatures, with lively and creative minds—and, yes, sometimes lazy or erroneous ones.
Languages change. They always have, and they always will. We no longer speak the same English found in “Beowulf.” Things that were once unacceptable become the norm, moving from the periphery of acceptability into the heart of prescriptivism. Other forms (when is the last time you said “dost” or “thou?”) go out of use.
So far, in however many millennia, no humans I’m aware of have reached a point of mutual incomprehensibility because the grammar changed too quickly or neologisms were rampant. Yet in every age there have been scores of people ready to lament the death of their beloved language.
Some languages have been protected against change more than others, although the results are dubious. France is possibly the most prescriptive language on the planet. The Académie Française has been correcting and censoring French since 1635, more or less freezing what is considered “correct” grammar in the seventeenth century. The upside is that a student of French can still read Racine and Corneille with relative ease because the written language has changed so little.
However, it has hardly halted the evolution of spoken French. French is a vibrant language, and its speakers are famous for “playing” with it. Take Verlan, a kind of slang in which speakers invert syllables so that a woman, une femme, becomes a meuf. The efforts of the Académie haven’t actually halted language change. They’ve just preserved the grammar and vocabulary of the written language at a particular stage.
The other way grammar know-it-alls often try to correct spoken language is by instructing you based on written language. Yet we don’t speak at all like we write. It would sound awkward and bizarre. That’s because writing and speech are two different modalities of the same language. Writing is standardized, formal, and prestigious, while speech changes more rapidly and is often seen as inferior.
Speech is influenced by the standardized form, but it doesn’t perfectly reflect it. Although there are occasions when it’s appropriate to speak like you write (a formal address, for example) or to write like you speak (text message or emails), generally these modalities remain in separate domains.
Don’t Go All Wild on Me, Though
Although this lesson can be hard to swallow, especially for the diehard grammarian, it’s often easier to spot when we learn a foreign language. We take it in stride that the Spanish we learn in the classroom will be of limited use out in the real world, where we’ll need to pick up colloquialisms, innovations, and constantly broken grammar rules that we were forced to memorize. Why should English be any different?
Now, of course, none of us want our children to grow up sounding ignorant, so we instruct them on the “proper” way to speak. This is for their own good, so their speech doesn’t hamper their ability to excel in the world. Nor will you find me or any other writer I know eschewing the rules of grammar because “it’s all relative” in the end. We work within the bounds of the grammar of our era to communicate most effectively and perhaps to slow the rate of change.
There is doubtless an art of language and writing that should not be abandoned. There is also some inherent value in learning the rules of the game. To form complex sentences in writing and speech requires a certain rigor, and it’s important to be able to communicate in nuanced ways within a grammatical framework.
But it’s good to remember that there is ultimately nothing you or I or our mothers can do or say to stop the onward march of language. In the introduction to “Mend Your Speech,” a 1920s pamphlet on proper usage, the authors write that “Slovenly speech is as clearly an indication of slovenly thought as profanity is of a degraded mind.” There may be something to that. But on the other hand, the slovenly speaker might just be on the cutting edge of language change.