Crimes against language: who decides what’s right and wrong?

For most crimes, the government decides what we are – and particularly are not – allowed to do. With crimes against language, the situation is a bit different. To begin with, you won’t normally be fined or put in jail for breaking the rules of grammar. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules – or does it? The answer is, it depends.

Many countries do have a government agency responsible for deciding what is grammatically right and wrong. It decides what words mean, sets rules on syntax (word order) and decides where we should, and shouldn’t, put commas. Spain has the Real Academia Española, France has the Académie française, Germany has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung and so on. They won’t fine you for putting a semi-colon instead of a colon in your blog, but they can tell you whether you are right or wrong.

Proper English

English is a world language, and it is spoken differently around the globe. Obviously accents vary, but the vocabulary and grammar are also sometimes different. Our recent post explains how people around the world even have many different ways of saying “Hello”. Native English speakers can understand other native speakers most of the time, but if you’re learning English it can be really difficult. Wouldn’t it be much easier if everyone spoke English properly?

That brings us straight to the next question: what is “proper English”? For some people, it is British English, because that’s where the language originally developed. But is British English really more correct than American English or Indian English, and who decides? The simple answer is no-one: there is no Royal Academy of the English Language, and all of the variants are equally “proper”. Partly because of this, English dictionaries and grammar books tend to be more open to change than their equivalents for other languages. If lots of people start using a new word, or use it in a new way, the new definition quickly finds its way into dictionaries. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary adds thousands of new definitions each year.

“Great! I can say whatever I like.”

Sorry, you can’t. People won’t understand you, for a start. So which variant of English should you learn, and how can you be sure you’re speaking and writing it correctly, if there are no official rules?

Let’s start with which version to learn. This is pretty obvious, but it’s worth saying: it depends how you’ll be using your English. If you want to be able to read newspaper articles or books in English, it makes little difference whether you learn British or American English, because you’ll probably end up reading a bit of both. However, if you’ll be studying or working in a particularly country, you should probably learn the local form of English.

Now let’s look at the lack of rules. In practice, it’s pretty irrelevant: you can learn English in the same way as any other language. Listen to your English teacher and native speakers, use dictionaries and grammar books and assume that the language used in books, newspaper articles and films is normally correct. Compared with some other languages, there is slightly less consensus about what is right, but that only affects you if you have a very high level of English.

If your English becomes really good, you may want to look at a style guide, which contains recommendations on grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. There are general style guides, such as Fowler’s Modern English Usage and The Oxford Style Manual, and style guides for specialist fields like The Chicago Manual of Style (academic papers) and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (journalism). Of course, they don’t always agree with each other…

In spite of the differences between the variants of English spoken around the world, and the lack of fixed rules, most of the time English speakers manage to understand each other without too much problem. For non-native speakers it can be confusing, but try to enjoy the diversity and richness of the language.

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