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Democracy, dictatorship and anarchy: who makes the rules of good English?

English is a mongrel language, one that has evolved over a long period of time, and continues to change. It’s also a language that has no standardised version. There is no single ‘correct’ version of English.

The obvious comparison is between US and UK English. We spell and use words differently. Often the same word can have a completely different meaning in one country to the other.

The French language, on the other hand, is strictly controlled by L’Académie Francaise, an institution that ‘protects’ the language by fixing an accepted standard of pronunciation, syntax and sentence construction.

But the sheer variety of English, the speed at which it changes and the way it gets changed by different people to suit their purposes, all go to make it a more vital and dynamic language.

In his book ‘Good English’, first published in 1951, GH Vallins wrote:

Do what we will, the language changes, words come and go, fashions in speech and writing , like other fashions, are variable….
Every period has its own crop of new words that arise, for the most part to fulfil an immediate need; and every period has its reactionary souls who vainly and sometimes bad-temperedly resist the inevitable change. But language is the most democratic of all institutions; it obeys the will of the people who speak and write it, not the prejudice of self-appointed dictators.

Anyone who takes writing seriously, whether they aim to produce great literature or just want to communicate well in their blogs or college reports, needs to know the classic rules and conventions on which language is based. We also need to know how the language is changing, so our writing does not come across as archaic. We need to move with the living language. But we don’t want to write in a modern idiom or slang which confines us to a narrow time and place. There’s a danger that the more modern you are, the more rapidly you go our of date.

And as writers, we also have a duty to look after the language we use. We don’t want to become one of those ‘self-appointed dictators,’ who tries to wrest control of the language and deny change. But we also want to maintain standards of good writing. We don’t want language to become a victim of the demagogues or to sink to the level of the lowest common denominator. If the language becomes anarchic, with people ignoring the rules of good grammar left,right and centre, then it ceases to function because we can’t understand each other.

All this seems like a mighty difficult balancing act and an awful lot of responsibility.

The question is, are we up to the task?