I drifted into—and later abandoned—one of those frustrating online discussions on grammar in which a participant insisted on distinguishing between what is correct and what is common.
What came to mind immediately was the social associations with common—“dead common,” as the English say, “downmarket,” “proles,” “plebs,” “the lower orders,” “the masses.” I’ve seen in some discussions people who sneer at the English usage of “the masses.” You can hear the sniff.
But when you are not struggling to maintain some fancied social superiority, that word common has a different resonance.
Hazlitt’s “On Familiar Style” begins with an insistence that “purity of expression” requires “the best word in common use.” He goes on, “To write a genuine familiar or truly English style, is to write as anyone would speak in common conversation.” And ”you do not attempt to rise above the level of ordinary life and colloquial speaking.” Hazlitt aims for a middle course between the formality of the pulpit and “vulgar dialect or clownish pronunciation.” His essay is not only an argument for the plain style, but an example of it.
Linguistically speaking, common speech is the norm, the original. The formal is an achieved dialect, adapted for specialized purposes in law, government, academia, the professions. The formal register is inherently conservative, attempting to act as a brake on the language. But it is the ordinary speakers of the language among whom it develops, much as the inability of illiterate Anglo-Saxon peasants to understand Norman French contributed significantly to the development of English.
That is H.L. Mencken’s insight in The American Language that the language is generated by and belongs to the ordinary speakers, “the plain people.” He advises, “The plain people, hereafter as in the past, will continue to make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and not often with much insight into it.”
Those of us who write and edit in the formal register will continue to do so, applying rules and conventions as intelligently as we are able. But we have to keep our eyes on the common language, because, when the last holdout on whom is gathered into the sticklers’ Valhalla, we will understand that it shapes us, not the other way around.