I love the English language, and I love being right. So I became a copy editor. But I grew to realise that my concept of rightness was wrong – and that if I truly loved the language, I’d have to change.
I’ve always been this way. At school, I was the kid who got asked to spell difficult words to save my classmates a trip to the dictionary. In my first job, I was the guy who got given reports to proofread before they went to the client. I played these parts with quiet relish.
But I wanted more.
And when I started getting into editorial work, I knew I needed to be more. My instincts needed to be sharper and my arsenal bigger. So I scoured books and websites for grammatical constructions to avoid, semantic distinctions to maintain. I built an orderly system of rules inside my head – a monument to my love for English and a guide to make sure I treated it right.
Use ‘that’ and not ‘which’ to introduce a restrictive clause. Use ‘affinity’ followed by ‘between’ or ‘with’ but never ‘to’ or ‘for’. Use ‘comprise’, without a preposition, to relate the whole to the parts and not vice versa. Use ‘compare to’ only when likening things. Use ‘disinterested’ for impartiality and not unconcern. Use ‘data’ in the plural. And please, use ‘beg the question’ only after consulting a philosopher.
Rules to make the language strong. Rules to keep it safe. Rules to respect logic and tradition.
For a time, I was happy. But slowly, two shadows fell over me.
The first was all the people – educated, intelligent, articulate people – who didn’t know about many of these rules. And yet they could still speak and write clearly, even powerfully and beautifully. So what exactly were those rules for? Who were they for?
The second came from the opposite direction. I’ve never been able to take seriously some so-called ‘rules’: don’t split infinitives; don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t start a sentence with a conjunction; don’t use ‘since’ or ‘as’ to mean ‘because’; don’t use ‘between’ with more than two things; use ‘jealous’ to denote protectiveness and not envy. These seemed archaic, arbitrary and irrelevant to how English really works. When someone insisted on one of these ‘rules’, I’d shake my head and wonder how they got themselves into such a state.
I was sorting the real rules from the bogus – using only my own judgement about what made sense and what felt right.
Not good enough.
So all of this led me to the question that unravels everything: what determines the rules of the English language?