All English Grammar Questions Answered At Once: Is it this way, or that way?

The type of English grammar question I see most frequently is of the sort, “Which way is proper: this way, or another way?” as if to settle a dispute or idle curiosity.

The answer in general, is that you must first specify a style of English to measure up against. There is no “standard English” that governs usage. If you think this is what dictionaries are for, you might seriously reconsider that whole idea after reading on.

Asking, “Is the term really supposed to be preventative, or is it really preventive?” without specifying a style, is like asking, “Am I allowed to hold the ball with my hands?” without specifying which sport. Being able to hold the ball with your hands depends if you’re the goalie in soccer or lacrosse, but is acceptable if you’re playing NFL football. It’s generally required in bowling, but disallowed in cricket.

Saying, “I mean, according to the rules of English in general,” in response to the style question, is like responding, “I don’t mean any sport.” Well, then there is either no answer, or perhaps too many answers to decide on just one, because no style governs the others. The rules for bowling do not govern jai alai; the rules for hopscotch do not govern lacrosse. The rules for APA style do not govern the Chicago Press; the rules for Yahoo! online style do not govern writing a letter to your grandmother. Unless you specify a style to measure the question against, you’ll get a thousand answers and no answer.

In the way that there are specific rules for the broad spectrum of each kind of sport that exists, and that each sport’s rules govern no sport but itself: English itself has no all-governing style that must be followed, but does have within it several styles which self-govern.

When I was at university for my major in English, I also took print journalism classes for my minor. In my news-writing classes, we were bound by the Associated Press Stylebook which prescribed rules such as hyphenation of “eight-year-old” and spelling out the number if it were below 10, phrasing large currency amounts such as “$10 million” instead of putting all the zeroes, and referring to a source in the story by their surname after having mentioned it fully once already.

But, there are other styles that other journalism programs abide by, such as Chicago Press Style or even the The Yahoo! Style Guide for online writing. Which style you are bound by is either up to you, or a governing influence such as an employer who can call your employment into question for failure to abide by the rules of that style.

This journalistic style differed from my English literature classes that required essays. A friend of mine taking the same type of classes received a call for a re-write of his literature essay with the words, “This might make a good story for the NYT, but this is English literature,” in red pen. Most of our literature classes abode by Strunk & White’s Manual of Style.

You may recall having to make term paper citations in MLA, APA, Turabian, or other such styles that have specific orders for parenthetical source references appended to statements within the paper. Even further, the professor could institute formatting styles such as double-spaced, certain margins, font sizes, and more. Of all of those styles, none of them are correct except within the confines of the situation — none of them governing English itself.

You may have said, “Well my Dear Mrs. Meriwether I had for home room in 8th grade Literature, said they’re is a contraction, and their is possessive, and showed us how the dictionary says so!”

The dictionary does not list the limitations of how words are permitted to be used. The dictionary does not prohibit a usage that isn’t listed within it. Perhaps more generally, the dictionary does not prescribe anything, but rather describes. Stay with me.

The researchers for dictionaries, called lexicographers, observe how words are used in every-day writing like Facebook, magazines, newspapers, Twitter, novels, TV scripts, letters, and more. These lexicographers jot down the different ways that the writers of the words intended to use them. That intention is pivotal — what the writer intends the word to mean is what is observed.

For instance, if one lexicographer observes that a particular writer uses abode when appearing to mean domicile, while another writer appears to use it as past-tense for abide, the lexicographer documents both usages. All of these go into one huge database called a corpus, which has all of the other lexicographical documentation from others observing in the same fashion.

When a dictionary entry is crafted, the corpus is consulted to identify the most numerous uses of a specific word in a certain way. For instance, use of abode may show in their records to spike higher when used to describe a domicile than as past-tense for abide. What constitutes “frequently enough” usage is arbitrary to the publisher’s whim, and not standardized. What you see in a dictionary entry is merely describing the ways which the word was observed to have been used most frequently — neither a limitation nor an approval of whether one is allowed or disallowed to use it. Other facts of the entry may reflect a predictable level of usefulness to the reader, but shies away from commandments of official status.

Merriam-Webster posits (emphasis theirs), “By relying on citational evidence, we hope to keep our publications grounded in the details of current usage so they can calmly and dispassionately offer information about modern English. That way, our references can speak with authority without being authoritarian.”

Michael Quinion, publisher of World Wide Words who also provides citations for the Oxford English Dictionary and wrote a third of the entries for the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, remarks, “Many believe that when (and only when) a word appears in a reputable dictionary it receives formal validation and can take its place in the English lexicon,” adding that, “As one of a number of researchers who collect evidence of new usage for the OED, it intrigued me to think that I might be a member, even a junior member, of a shadowy cabal that sets the standards for all well-educated English speakers. No — the process really is as anarchic as it seems.”

Why is it, do you think, that dictionary entries contain meanings in the order listed? Why that particular order? They’re listed in the order of most frequently observed.

There was a fracas several years ago when journalism pieces began to emerge announcing that dictionaries were “changing” the entries to include meanings about marriage that included ways other than merely a man and a woman, and outrage resulted from people who believed dictionary editors were bending to the will of political pressure to make the changes — but that was simply untrue.

The simple fact was that the observed usage of marriage began to appear in commonly observed text to intend to mean ways different than simply one man and one woman — so since the statistics of the corpus changed because of how the common people used marriage, so too did the content of the entry. It was believed to be a political move by those who failed to understand dictionaries, as if they dictionaries were proposing that marriage is or isn’t actually one way or another. Rather, the dictionaries merely reflect how the masses intend words.

Think of a newspaper that reports on a murder. Is the newspaper saying that since a particular murder happened at one point in time, in a certain way, that all future murders must take place in the same pattern? No, the newspaper is merely describing an event that took place prior, not prescribing how murders must take place.

Likewise, is the sports page mandating that all future sporting events between two teams must be scored 77-113? No, that is the score of a prior event, not future events. Likewise, a dictionary is a newspaper about how words have been observed to be used, not how they are limited from being used.

Also, the idea that only the most frequent usages are what must be used (perhaps for purposes of requiring as few as possible questions of intent) is a philosophy, not a rule. If it were a rule, then we would not have even heard of the poet ee cummings, as nearly every bit of his poetry exhibits the astandard.

The insistence that language be standardized to offer the least ambiguity is merely a preference of communication applied in numerous valid situations, like the medical field when mere seconds of inefficient language breakdown may cost a patient their life. In journalism, setting a codified style can be employed successfully to act as evidence in a courtroom scenario such as for a libel case whether the ambiguity of something can be cited against the stylebook, to identify objectively what a certain phrasing did actually mean, in the face of what was falsely interpreted by the reader.

Further, consider the classification of an English degree — it is an Arts degree. If you are taking a class for how to paint in the pointillism style, and your professor says you must use a certain brand of paint, are you failing to paint in pointillism by using an off-brand? No, you’re merely transgressing the limitations the professor insists for the purposes of achieving a passing grade within the context of the class.

If you use broad brush strokes and call it pointillism, are you still painting in pointillism? You still could be, because art is not even susceptible to regulation except by entirely subjective standards, rather than objective measures. The broad brush strokes could be to make a single large dot spanning a single canvas, whereas the completed work is a series of so-dotted canvases.

Further, considering the fact that the dictionary itself is based on how words are intended to be used, it could be reasoned that the dictionary is merely a listing of the ways words are most often intended — and that a dictionary itself is not more reliable than asking the source what was meant, but just that larger numbers of other people meant to use the word differently than the usage in question, and the larger numbers don’t make it more correct unless your personal philosophy insists on matching the trends of the masses.

Think of a hashtag search of Twitter or Tumblr. If you enter a search for #SNSD, what you will receive is a listing of the observed usage of #SNSD, not the limitations on how someone is allowed to use #SNSD. The dictionary is, in essence, a hashtag search, if almost all words were hashtags — and it observes the trends in the ways people have used them, without suggesting that those ways are the only ways allowed to use them.

If it were up to me, the “correct” philosophy of communication would be the speaker to be the sole authority on the meaning of their usage. My reason for this is that, under a system that proposes that the listener’s interpretation of the speaker’s words having more merit, allows for cases of abuse to be credible, such as situations in which consent is required.

If the listener has more credibility on acting upon interpretation, then yes may simply be interpreted as no, and the abuser may act by interpretation of consent. However, if the speaker’s usage is investigated and given higher credibility than the listener’s guessings-of, then there will be little room for miscommunication. The speaker, who would suffer the greatest amount over the misunderstood intent, should have the highest degree of authority of what their own usage intended to express.

The fact that dictionaries are crafted at their very essence upon this aspect is very significant — and I think you may find that those who (falsely) believe that dictionaries actually mandate correct or incorrect usages also believe that it is the listener who has the authority over proper interpretation of the speaker’s intent, rather than the speaker over their own.

Someone told me that an old teaching adage supposes that, “If the student hasn’t learned, then the teacher hasn’t taught.” I would propose a modification instead to be, “If a teacher refuses questioning, then the teacher hasn’t taught; if the student hasn’t questioned, then the student hasn’t studied.”

If you are still in disbelief of this idea, that dictionaries do not regulate English, and you still maintain that dictionaries do set limitations on the ways words must be used, then be so kind as to look up, in your dictionary of choice, to discover whether “word” contains any definition that includes limitations. I think you will find moreso to the effect, of a letter/sound or series of letters/sounds that correspond to an intention..

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2 Responses to All English Grammar Questions Answered At Once: Is it this way, or that way?

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