The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 2: Tear up the rule book?

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part two:

Tear up the rule bookIn part one, I talked about the changes I envisage the internet bringing to the range of Englishes currently spoken around the world. I was brought up with the mantra ‘Might Isn’t Right’. But as the internet leads to the blurring of the boundaries between all the world’s Englishes, might is most definitely right.

While we undergo this particular phase of language development, though, it will become harder and harder to teach ‘proper’ English; it will become harder and harder to justify changes when editing and proofreading, too. We are already careering towards a more global English, when the habits of one variety will bleed into the others. We are in the privileged position of watching it happen as no other generation has been able to do before. Its speed is breathtaking. Sometimes our stomachs flip. Sometimes it hurts our eyes. Sometimes you just want a few solid rules to cling onto, as they gave their shape to the English we knew growing up.

Evolution of the language didn’t stop when I was at school. It’s not stopped yet. It won’t ever. For now, it’s speeding up, fuelled by people communicating with each other in numbers never seen before, and displayed for all to see on the platform of the internet.

I remember an English lesson when I was aged ten or so, in which the wonderful Mr Harwood told us that the plural of hoof is hooves or hoofs, and that the plural of roof is roofs or rooves; that neither was wrong but that hooves and roofs were more commonly used. Well, that’s settled down in the last half-century. I don’t think I’ve ever seen rooves since. But I’ve also not yet come across anyone else who was taught that there are varieties of ‘correct’ and that weight of numbers matters in language (might actually becomes right in the end).

We’ve all seen evolution in action – consider E-mail to e-mail to email; on line to on-line to online. The new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brought out in 2007 took out 16,000 hyphens. Evolution is accompanied by mass extinction events, after all.

Even experienced editors, who know all this stuff, sometimes betray themselves with a ‘Well, I was taught….’ or a ‘Which is correct…?’ Language is moving too fast, now. It’s always been a numbers game. ‘Aks’ for ask is around a thousand years old in Britain. So is singular ‘they’, plural ‘none’ and a host of other usages the reactionaries lambast as Wrong. Thousand-year-old mistakes perpetuated by the hoi polloi, or thousand-year-old valid alternatives? Who decides?

What’s hard to accept, perhaps particularly for those who really paid attention at school (but who weren’t lucky enough to have Mr Harwood) and have stuck to what they were taught ever since, despite the evidence all around them, is that there is no outside authority dictating these ‘rules’ or arbitrating disputes about them. There is just opinion: informed, uninformed and not yet formed. And there is time. And there are users of English. There is not necessarily consensus. Mash those up together, then you’ll find the prescriptivists are fighting a losing battle.

So – what’s to be done? We editors and proofreaders need to know our stuff, and to be able to defend our edits. How can we do this against a background where language is turning to quicksand? Two words: style guide.

The style guide will, I think, become the touchstone. It will be the standard for that publisher, that government, that company as now, but I can see that copy-editors will need to be far more proactive in producing style guides for clients. I suspect that more and more organisations will be publishing theirs, as The Economist, the Guardian, the BBC and the UK government have done. We will need to be aware of what free-standing style guides are available and talk to clients about choosing the one that best fits them, with or without a degree of personalisation.

The rule book isn’t dead – it never really lived. But style guides? They’ll go on forever.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Sandra Rawlin.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

2 thoughts on “The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 2: Tear up the rule book?

  1. andal krishnan

    Hi Sue

    I love your article. I live in Singapore/Malaysia. Many of us who were taught ” proper ” English are fighting a losing battle trying to follow the rules in the grammar books. So Do’s & Don’ts has been deemed right as it happens more often in the internet than Dos & Don’ts. My point of reference is Oxford’s Manual for Editors. But may be that too is outdated!

    Reply
    1. Sue Littleford

      Thanks, Andal! I think we’re at a very interesting stage in the development of English as a global language. As I’ve said here and in the previous piece, chunks of the grammar we were taught at school have never been ‘correct’, and grammar moves along just as vocabulary does, though rather more slowly. But as the Chinese curse says – may you live in interesting times! It does make it difficult for editors, proofreaders and all of us who work with language whether as teachers, writers or just users. This is why I think that style guides will win out, at least during this transition period when I think things are moving much faster than before but, I suspect, also more quickly than they will in the future once we have reached calmer waters. Style guides don’t pretend to be Rules that everyone must follow, they are guides to the style decisions made for a particular publication that others can adopt where they find them useful. In the meantime, we all have to go through a period of adaptation and I don’t pretend that it will be comfortable! There is still a huge core of agreement on how English works, of course – the trick is in figuring where the changes are and whether they’re acceptable for the register of English you’re using.

      Sue

      Reply

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