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Free-market English

The Baltimore Sun

Last month Tom Freeman, the Stroppy Editor, took on the task of setting straight The Idler over its dismissal of Oliver Kamm, the author of Accidence Will Happen: “Mr Kamm,” The Idler wrote, “argues for a utilitarian approach to grammar. He reckons that if a mistake is made enough times, then it is no longer a mistake. We don’t agree: we reckon grammar is more like the law.”

Probably thinking about the rules of grammar leads people to think of it as law, but that is a serious mistake, from which many other mistakes follow. English is not legislated. There is no central authority. Grammarians, rather, have deduced the rules of English grammar by looking at how English is spoken and written (and have sometimes ill-advisedly tried to fit it into a Latin corset), and linguists do the same thing.

Mr. Freeman’s insight is that instead of law, “language is controlled by market forces.”

Some products stay on the market for a very long time. Others are periodically rebranded. New products pop up, have a vogue; some of them remain on the shelf, but most fail to find steady customers. There are upmarket products and downmarket products. The result is the product of innumerable individual choices.

Language is thoroughly democratic. Language is the ultimate in crowdsourcing.

I, as a speaker and writer of English, am descriptivist. I look at what it is doing at the moment, puzzling it out, making my own choices. Prescriptivism comes in when as a gimlet-eyed editor or teacher I advise which available product is best suited to the customer. I do not lay down the law, for there is no law.

This is a hard lesson for the people who crave certainty and genuflect to authority, often bogus authority, as well as for the people who enjoy imposing authority. But it is the way things work.

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