This & That Thursday: An Opinion Piece – The Way We Think About Grammar is Broken

I’ve touched on this fact in a few blog posts where I talked about breaking grammar rules: language is fluid. As an editor and writer, it’s easy to get caught up in the rules and be a major stickler about them. But it’s good to be flexible, and it’s important to remember that the fact you were taught something in school doesn’t make it cardinal law.

Take, for example, my post on the phrase “beg the question.” While the misuse of this phrase is a personal pet peeve of mine, and of many linguistic nerds I know, it’s been so widely misused that the new meaning of the phrase has gained acceptance – not to mention the fact that many, if not most, English speakers don’t know the original, “correct” meaning of the phrase.

The way language changes over time can be likened to how the earth’s landscape changes. We humans do our very best to keep things the same, or to manipulate them when it suits us, but in the end language is organic and ever-changing and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The first comprehensive, modern English dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson, appeared in print in 1755. In many ways, it changed our perspective of the language – for the first time there was a common standard for how to spell most words and how to use them. As Johnson himself put it, he hoped to compile “a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” (source)

While it was a noble goal, and Johnson’s efforts certainly helped shape English into what it is today, you can see just by reading that one quote how much the language has still managed to change in less than 300 years. And it will always continue to change; there’s nothing you or I can do to stop it. My job as an editor isn’t to keep English from changing. It’s just to help make your writing as clear and understandable as I can for the audience you’re writing to. Grammar is at the service of language, not the other way around.