Whose Language Is This, Anyway?

I am happy to report that I have finally dug my way out from under a mountain of student essays and climbed back up to the desk to write some posts. Sorry for the mid-week hiatus.

As I was examining grammar handbooks for the next installment of Writing Power’s Proper Usage Guide, I came across a thought-provoking characterization of the difference between “can” and “may.” I was surprised to discover that Diana Hacker’s Writers Reference, usually a bastion of fine distinctions, adopted a fatalistic tone about can/may.

Hacker argues that the line between “can” and “may” has grown faint, and that the usage difference is now largely maintained in formal writing situations. (In case you’re curious, “can” concerns ability, while “may” deals with permission. Can I lift this heavy bag? May I borrow five dollars?)

So why has Diana Hacker given up on can/may? What’s next – shrugging at between versus among? Does it matter?

Since I’m an English professor, you may expect me to say, “yes, it matters! Hold the line lest we descend into chaos!” But that’s not my perspective, and I’ll tell you why.

I don’t think we should insist on maintaining distinctions that complicate the language merely because “that’s the rule.” Grammar and usage rules are not inviolable. Moreover, some of these grammar commandments have archaic, no longer relevant logic underpinning their oh-so-confident “thou shalt nots.”

Many of the grammar rules that we struggle to obey are simply outdated. In English, a desire for standardization engendered a host of prescriptive rules, based not divine inspiration but on observation. That is, nineteenth century prescriptivist grammarians determined rules based on their observations of what great writers in the past had done. They seemed to know what they were doing, so the rules were modeled after them.

Just in case you missed it, the prescriptivist logic went like this: If great writers do X, then X must be correct. Thus, X is correct because great writers do it. There’s no transcendent grammatical Truth. Shakespeare, for example, uses a wide variety of grammatical constructions that some usage books would condemn. He also spelled his own name about ten different ways. But if you could write like Shakespeare, you would, right? There’s more to writing than following rules.

Unfortunately, prescriptivism is often accompanied by zeal and a dogmatic insistence on a rule’s correctness, and that’s what makes it unpalatable to me. Tell me that a particular grammatical construction is more useful, clearer, more concise, or more precise, and I’m on board. Just don’t tell me that it’s right by virtue of the rule alone.

This is not to say that we should have no rules. We wouldn’t be able to understand each other’s sentences if they didn’t conform to some grammatical standards. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that some grammatical constructions are inherently “right.”

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