The triumph of the linguistic free market

The Idler’s annual Bad Grammar Awards are not about ridiculing grocers. They are about promoting the public discussion of grammar and, perhaps more importantly, exposing cant and humbug.

This is a noble aim and I am proud to support it.

By chance, I myself noticed a fine dose of cant and humbug the other day, in the Idler’s announcement of its Bad Grammar Awards.

It singles out Oliver Kamm’s “utilitarian approach to grammar”, saying:

He reckons that if a mistake is made enough times, then it is no longer a mistake. We don’t agree: we reckon grammar is more like the law. There is a set of agreed rules but the rules change over time. Both are based on a principle: with the Law the principle is fairness; with grammar the principle is clarity. We need a common language in order to be able to communicate.

Grammar – and, like so many pontificators on the topic, by grammar they mean language in general – is not like the law. Language is a set of social customs.

The law is defined by a particular group of people whose job it is to define the law. No such group exists for language, apart from the entire English-speaking population.

The “agreed rules” of English are agreed only tacitly, although we can try to codify them. And, at any one time, many of them cover only part of the population, or only some situations. The agreements change as more and more individuals change their linguistic habits; there is no moment of decision when a change is agreed.

The principle is clarity – and the people best placed to judge clarity are the people. All of us. We are the ones reading, writing, talking, listening. If we find that one way of using words helps us communicate more clearly than another, then we will favour the better way. There would be no point in having some committee of the great and the good to ponder its way towards these decisions on our behalf.

Most people who complain about language as the Idler’s judges do aren’t making a linguistic analysis, based on fact and reason. They’re just venting their conservatism.

I find it sad, and a little puzzling, that conservatives find it so hard to grasp that language is controlled by market forces. Nobody is in charge, and that makes our language far more dynamic, efficient, and rich.


Update: John McIntyre develops the ‘language as market’ analogy:

Some products stay on the market for a very long time. Others are periodically rebranded. New products pop up, have a vogue; some of them remain on the shelf, but most fail to find steady customers. There are upmarket products and downmarket products. The result is the product of innumerable individual choices.

Language is thoroughly democratic.

That’s exactly what I was (less articulately) thinking. Except for maybe the last bit.

In a democracy, everyone – in theory – has an equal vote. But in a market, we’re not all equal.

Some people are better than others at manufacturing usages, or at least marketing them. And some have more purchasing power than others. Those whose language is the most prominent – such as famous people or major publishers – have more influence on the language market, and can affect the fortunes of certain usages by buying into them.

Market success doesn’t necessarily reflect the intrinsic quality of a product – remember VHS vs Betamax? But when consumers choose products based on compatibility, the idea of intrinsic quality breaks down.

Sometimes a well-designed product will go bust. The people who backed it may try to keep it alive, but if the buyers lose interest there’s not much to be done. You can’t buck the market.

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  • popegrutch  On September 14, 2015 at 11:44 pm

    Now, in German they do have an “official” orthography (if not grammar), hence the ongoing debate over Rechtschreibreform ( As an American, I’d always assumed that the “Queen’s English” worked in the same way, but that only we rebellious colonials had freed our conventions from centralized control, hence gaining the right to spell “center” in a sensible fashion and use quotation marks logically. Apparently, I was wrong in this belief.

  • Jonathon Owen  On September 15, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    The funny thing is that it sounds like the folks at the Idler actually do agree with Kamm in principle. They just don’t like his conclusion, so they think his premises are wrong. But if grammar is a set of agreed-upon rules that change over time but are nevertheless governed by clarity, then a lot of supposed errors aren’t really errors.

  • j0egreen  On September 17, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    “Grammar – and, like so many pontificators on the topic, by grammar they mean language in general – is not like the law. Language is a set of social customs.”

    But where do you think the law came from? It’s not arbitrary. It’s a formalisation of social customs. Granted it evolves more slowly than language, but there are strong parallels.

    “The law is defined by a particular group of people whose job it is to define the law. No such group exists for language”

    I think the Académie française might take exception to that attitude.

  • Alex K  On October 9, 2015 at 1:10 am

    I have a question about singular they, but I’m not sure if it will have any visibility if I comment under the relevant article as it is pretty old. Sorry for off-topic.

    I subscribe totally to the idea that English needs a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, but when I get to the point where I have to write something like “they walks across the room”, I stop and get sad. I experimented a bit with the invented pronouns, “xe” and “e/ey” in particular, but I still hope that I can make singular they work, mostly because that sounds better when inner reader gets to it.

    So my question is, is there a way around that? None of the articles on singular they I read dealt with that usage scenario. I hate the “rewrite the sentence” advice, partly because that seems like a non-solution, and mostly because I’m lazy.

    Tom, or anyone else who has a solution, or any ideas at all on how this should play out, please comment.

    P. S. I guess the implicit question here is: what gender-neutral pronoun will be used in 20 years in a sentence like “that biker is killing it out there. ___ is my new favourite” (gender unknown, or better yet, irrelevant).

    P. P. S. I’m not a native English speaker, sorry for any mistakes.

    • Tom Freeman  On October 9, 2015 at 7:04 am

      Hi Alex. I have a very simple solution for you: when using “they” as singular, you should still use the plural forms of verbs with it: they walk, they are etc.

      “Xe” and other invented terms are interesting efforts, but very few people understand them. If you use those words, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get into a conversation about what they mean!

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