Disputes over English usage are full of familiar items. Split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions, words like [you might prefer such as] hopefully and decimate – the same issues keep showing up, despite convincing arguments that there’s seldom a problem with any of them, leaving aside the question of register. It feels as though these are battles that should have been won a long time ago, yet they persist. Why is this?
One of the main reasons is simple intolerance. People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.
In a post on the British Council blog last month, Michael Rundell showed how prescriptivist complaints about everyday English usage depend on ignoring the evidence. For example, hopefully meaning ‘it is to be hoped’ is centuries old and is the more common of the word’s two standard senses, but sticklers employ the etymological fallacy to claim that this popular usage is wrong. It isn’t – they just don’t like it, and they indulge the fantasy that the whole world should bend to their narrow preference.
There is no good reason to do this. It doesn’t help anyone. Polysemy is an integral part of English; it’s natural that some words become polysemous as their usage extends into other semantic areas and grammatical categories. A living language positively relies on these trends. But peevers reject them dogmatically as not only wrong but deplorable, and the hostility of their judgements unsettles anyone inclined to defer to apparent authority.
I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works. People often prefer to play it safe and obey a rule they’re unsure about than risk being wrong in the eyes of such voluble and withering critics.
Little wonder there have been calls for teachers to replace the term grammar with understanding language. Not only would this appeal more to students, given grammar’s often-unfavourable reputation, it would also help convey the idea that grammar differs greatly from style and usage. Contrary to popular belief, many of the usual linguistic bugbears do not boil down to absolute right or wrong grammar, but to legitimate usage variation according to context and personal preference.Email this Post