Dear language purists,

Language changes.

Deal with it.

I got mansplained recently, in the most belittling of ways which quickly devolved to mockery and insults when I called him out on it. (In truth, I hurled the first insult.)

He was a PhD student from the local university, social media tells me. He emailed me to tell me about an ‘error’ he had found on my website.

When you put a lot of content out into the universe, people let you know when they find an error. I’m always incredibly grateful and have been known to send off a free book as a thank you.

But this. This was not a friendly Hey, I think I found an error.  This was a gloating, condescending, 4-paragraph grammar lesson which was, of course, completely unnecessary. So I told him so. And suggested in future he might approach such a find in a gentler, more diplomatic way, maybe even asking if perhaps it was a mistake rather than assuming he was right and knew better than me. Then I called him an asshat.

Anyway.

What it left me reflecting on was language purists. The prescriptive vs descriptive grammar debate.

In my trainings this is a topic that invariably comes up – because, when teaching the principles of plain language, we have to understand the difference between rules and conventions.  In my definition:

  • Rules = practices that impact on meaning
  • Conventions = practices we’ve been taught are rules, but don’t affect meaning – they’re just things we got told were right and wrong.

The discussion comes up when we talk about starting a sentence with And or But.  Or when we cover the Oxford comma. And someone says, Hey. When does it all end? Do we just give up on the English language and let it all go to hell and communicate through text speak and emojis?

That’s when I explain, well, language has always changed, evolved. And it does that based on usage, not on the rules or edicts of prescriptive grammarians.

Look at Old English.  The Middle English.  The Shakespeare’s English – which is classed as Modern English but clearly isn’t the English we speak today, duh.

Look.  At.  How.  It.  Changes.

I explain that it’s up to each of us to decide where (and if) we draw a line. Are you willing to accept that language changes, that English is and always has been an evolving language, or are you going to stamp your feet and pout and say that what you learned in school is truth, the end, and refuse to accept anything else?

I tell you, if you do that you’ll spend your life telling everyone else they’re wrong and reminding yourself how clever you are for knowing better than the entire universe.

The choice really is up to you. It’s clear where I stand. I’m willing to let go of all kinds of conventions – I only follow what helps readers understand and process information faster. That’s who I’m writing for – not me.

Dear language purist,

You and my PhD misogynist friend should go have a party all by yourselves.

The rest of us are going to keep moving on.