Whose Rules?

In matters of grammar and usage, it’s not always easy to know what’s correct.

In France, a government-run Academy serves as the official authority. Here in America, no single authority has been appointed to give us definitive answers. We must consider various sources, sometimes conflicting, and make our own decisions.

Language authorities generally fall into one of two schools. The prescriptivists offer explicit guidance. The descriptivists simply record how language is used, without passing judgment.

The second group might be called permissivists. At least some of its members apparently believe that no rules should exist. If enough people use a word incorrectly, it somehow comes to be “right.” Thus, for example, it’s okay for disinterested to mean uninterested, instead of — or in addition to — its primary meaning of impartial. Many dictionaries have capitulated on this point. But by this reasoning, ain’t is acceptable. After all, so many people use it!

If following a rule creates an awkward result, you might need to break it. But another choice often exists. For example, a venerable rule forbids beginning a sentence with however. The alternative: It’s usually possible to respect the rule by substituting but or another word or phrase. Or by relocating however within the sentence.

In general, I advise observing traditional standards, unless a compelling reason exists to disregard them. Here’s why:

1. Customs and conventions aren’t irrelevant. They’re part of civilized society. I call this “The Necktie Principle.” No good reasons exist to wear ties, and one could cite several arguments against them. But a man in the corporate world who abandoned ties would likely come to regret that decision. So it is with language. Even the permissivists don’t spell physician with an F, even though it would be more “logical.”

2. We’re judged by how we use language. In your career and social life, you’re viewed as educated or uneducated, literate or illiterate, on the basis of how well you speak and write. Like it or not, such first impressions help determine your status, advancement, and romantic success.

3. It doesn’t pay to be perceived as wrong, even if you can prove that you’re “right.” If you flout a rule, you may have a case. But it’s impractical to justify your position in conversation or in most written work. For instance, if you use enormity to mean large and your listener advocates its traditional meaning of “a great evil,” it would be a bit awkward to haul out a dictionary containing the permissive definition.

As you might guess, I incline toward the prescriptivist camp. But I recognize that language changes, and that the rules may be bent when necessary. As with many things in life, common sense should prevail.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]