Language by the People

by Erin Brenner on October 14, 2011

In a LinkedIn Group recently, someone asked:

Which one of the two is the correct usage? “The people that knew about the ceremony” or “The people who knew about the ceremony”?

There was a bit of back and forth over whether that was an acceptable pronoun for people. I wrote about this question in the article “Who’s That,” explaining that that has been an acceptable pronoun for animate objects for over a thousand years.

One of the LinkedIn participants didn’t think that a thousand years of usage was a valid argument for correct grammar:

To claim that either is correct in formal English is absurd … I’m sure that “irregardless” has been in use for over a thousand years, but that doesn’t make it right! Perhaps we could start saying “the chair who stood in the corner”? 😉

The fact is, though, that consistent, accepted usage for an extended period of time is exactly what makes something legitimate.

The point of language is to communicate. Shared meaning leads to successful communication. Speakers make language. We decide collectively on the meaning of words and on a shared grammar: the rules of how words can be put together in a sentence in a way that communicates meaning.

“The vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate,” says Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, “are influenced by a number of factors, such as the reason for the communication, the context, the people with whom we are communicating, and whether we are speaking or writing. Taken together, these choices give rise to systematic patterns of use in English.”

So a decision made repeatedly by millions of people over a long period qualifies as a systematic pattern of use. And that use becomes a rule.

People love language and love to play with language. We make up words all the time. We move them around. We play with them. We change them. We discard them when they’re no longer useful or fun.

People have an innate ability to create and learn languages. We don’t need to wait to go to school to learn how to talk or how to use words. By age two, most of us are stringing together simple sentences. By the time school rolls around a year or three later, we’re masters of communication. So what are we learning in school? We’re (hopefully) learning the rules behind our communication skills to better control those skills and become more sophisticated at using language.

Why, then, do we disagree so much about language?

First, no one can accurately and thoroughly explain everything about language. The system is too complex, too much an innate part of us, for any one person to know it all. We misunderstand rules and pass them on, propagating the error. Over time, we’ve come to understand a lot better how language works and what’s happening when we speak or write. But we’re nowhere close to total understanding.

Then there’s variation in how we speak and write to different audiences. We speak one way to our parents, another way to our friends, another way to our bosses, and so on. We make style choices in our speech and writing to appeal to certain audiences. That doesn’t make any one way of speaking wrong if communication is happening. It does make some styles of communicating unacceptable to certain groups. Some people don’t understand these different registers of language; to them, only one style is acceptable. There are no nuances in their rules.

A third reason we disagree is that language is alive; it changes with its speakers. Each generation molds language to fit its purposes and its experiences. In this digital age, in which we are connected with and influenced by more people than ever before, language changes even faster. Frankly, some people stopped learning about language in elementary school or high school or even college. They missed the lesson that taught about language changes. They aren’t keeping up with the changes and flatly refuse to accept the evidence that their eyes and ears give them. They learned it one way, and that’s the only way it can be. Period.

We language speakers are the ones who make the rules. The experts and resources can only do one of two things: describe what they see or prescribe their preferences. We can choose to follow those preferences or not. Common usage comes from a significant portion of the language community accepting a shared meaning and a shared usage.

By the way, irregardless has been around since at least 1912, yet most English speakers still regard it as nonstandard and it remains an error in most English speakers’ opinion. It isn’t just longevity that counts but also acceptance by a significant number of language users.

Previous post:

Next post: