What makes someone an authority on the English language?

A vocabulary slip on my part in a recent post led to an email conversation with long-time reader Steve G., which eventually meandered over to this question.

I’ve done a fair amount of thinking on the idea, and can offer a short list of the most important criteria: an authority backs up its position with evidence, experience, consensus, and the respect of other experts and authorities. (We could add other factors, but I’ve limited this post to that short list.)

Some languages have official language academies with the mission of keeping the language pure or honest or “consistent with its fundamental principles.” But English has no equivalent of the RAE, the Académie française, or the Accademia della Crusca. There’s no official version of English, no designated English language institute to issue new words or rule on grammatical disputes, and no officially appointed or elected panel of arbiters of correct and incorrect usage.

Yet we have experts (and plenty of them), some commonly acknowledged and others self-appointed. Why give deference to any of them?

Here’s what I think. Since English doesn’t have official arbiters, we also don’t have official manuals stating how to use English. An artificial language—be it Esperanto, or Java or SQL for that matter—can have rigid rules of syntax, with simple and clear guidelines on how the elements of the language (be they letters, words, or sentences) are strung together (into words, sentences, and larger objects) to deliver meaning. There are also rules about things like verb tense, declension, case, and so on. English has plenty of these rules—you’ll instantly look ignorant if you can’t get your noun-verb agreement correct, or if you screw up your plurals—but there’s quite a bit of leeway. These rules don’t have the force of law, but grew out of tradition, consensus, and expedience.

Without rigid official grammar manuals, English adopts by default the authority of style guides—unofficial handbooks that describe what’s best and explain why. Instead of strictures detailing how the language works, we instead get advice and suggestions (with the occasional proscription) and—in the better cases—examples and models to follow.

Fair enough, you say. There’s no government language agency in London or Cambridge or Washington, DC, to tell me what I can and can’t do. So who are those people in Oxford and Chicago who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell me what I can and can’t do? Who died and made them keepers of the language?

Again, a fair enough question. But let’s turn it around: if you moved into a new house and your electrician told you that he needed to re-wire your main panel, you wouldn’t ask him who died and made him keeper of electricity. If your doctor told you that your cholesterol was too high, you needed to lose 5 pounds, and you weren’t getting enough sleep, you wouldn’t ask her who died and made her the keeper of healthcare.

You would accept their analyses, their conclusions, their professional judgment (a judgement is, after all, a special kind of informed opinion). Why? For many reasons, some having to do with education, training, and certification, but others having to do with their practical experience doing that job, built on a long tradition of formal and informal education and accumulated knowledge.

Who said that doctor deserves to be a doctor? The school where she earned her degree. Well, who gave that school the right? An accrediting body. Yes, but who gave them that right? Well…we can keep going deeper and deeper, but what you’ll find in most professions is that there’s some kind of body that at some point in history was created when the members of that profession made an effort to hold themselves to rigid standards and drive out the underqualified amateurs and quacks. Some of these groups go back centuries, others are quite new, but they have that in common: they needed a way to formalize their standards and build outsiders’ confidence in the profession.

For language authorities, the idea is the same, although the implementation isn’t. Professional users of language have all sorts of associations and societies: the Writers Guild of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Modern Language Association, and AWP, to name a few of very many. They have different focuses: screenwriting, travel writing, teaching, and so on. (I’ve been a member of different groups but am a current member of only the Editorial Freelancers Association).

But membership in these groups is not particularly stringent. You can’t join the AMA without a recognized medical degree, get into the ABA without verified licensing, or become a voting member of IEEE without proper accreditation or demonstrated competence. In many cases, however, you can join a writers’ association with little or no
fuss. Even when there are higher bars, these organizations have no actual power when it comes to what you can and can’t do professionally: the medical profession has ways to stop unqualified doctors from practicing, but anyone can write and publish a book, no matter how much of an affront the content is to readable English.

How does an individual or organization become an accepted authority on English? The same way one becomes an authority on anything: through education, training, practice, dedication, an adherence to professional standards, and a demonstrated record of quality work. The only real difference is that “the profession of English” has no accrediting body. There’s no shortage of professional associations, but few of them make any claim to being arbiters of “good English.”

If I were to ask you who you accept as an authority for English spelling, grammar, punctuation, and so on, you would probably rattle off names from a short list, including Strunk & White, OED, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage. If I tweaked the question a
little—who would you cite for best practices?—and gave you time to think, you might throw out the names of some respected institutions and successful authors: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood. We’ll disagree on specifics, but not the general idea: we’re all willing to trust institutions with a long history of integrity and individuals with an acknowledged expertise in the language.

You might spot a weakness in my case. ‘My eighth grade English teacher had 30 years experience, but I’ve had to unlearn almost everything he taught me.’ Or ‘That author has sold 100 million copies, but educated critics agree that some of the writing is near gibberish. Why should I trust advice from that source?

Which gets us back to the real criteria for expertise: evidence. None of the authorities I’ve
mentioned, regardless of how long they’ve been around or how well-regarded they are, should stand if they tell you what to do but don’t back it up with evidence.

When it comes to English usage, this means that an authority can’t say ‘Do it this way.‘ An authority must say ‘Do it this way, because of this. Here are examples.’ All good authorities do this.

The best will go further: ‘Here is an example of it done wrong: note the difference. Here is further historical support for this recommendation. Here are summaries of what other authorities have said on this point.

And, by the way: an authority does not have to be ancient and well-known to be trustworthy. Some have been around for ages: OED, Strunk & White, Fowler. But there are perfectly good modern authorities who can be trusted because they provide consistently good advice supported by solid evidence: Garner, Language Log, Grammar Girl. There are numerous authorities you might not have heard of, but which have earned their reputations by providing both solid advice and advice that is solidly supported.

Should you consider me an authority? I don’t presume that you will. But if you follow this recommendation and require that every authority provide good evidence before you accept its advice, then you’re likely to always choose good authorities that deserve your respect. The overall quality of contemporary English will have risen, if ever so slightly, and you will (I can only hope) have improved your critical thinking ability. That’s more than enough for me.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to What makes someone an authority on the English language?

  1. vearjohn says:

    What is “English”, with this capital “E”? How about “language”?

    In his *Games People Play*, Eric Berne said that during the course of the day, people transact in & adapt to different social contexts.

    For each social context, the person adapts to then plays a different role or game, each with its own “language”, with its own particular vocabulary, its own tones of voice, its facial expressions, body-language, gait, breath… For each role/game, the person might be cast as Child, or Adult, or Parent…

    Here’s an entertaining example. Damon Runyon, a newspaper-scribe, was famous for his short stories, (collected eg in *Guys & Dolls*,* Broadway, More Than Somewhat*, etc.) These his characters spoke in one of prohibition New York’s dialects, which used only the present tense. That was part of their game.

    Similarly, ancient Hebrew offered only only two tenses, the perfect and the imperfect. Further, (another linguistic peculiarity of ancient Hebrew,) unlike in modern western languages, the past was before them and the future behind them.

    Grammar? Anthropology?

    John

    • Hi, John –

      Thanks for the comment.

      The issue at hand was with “English” in particular (conventionally spelled with a capital “E”), not with “language” in general. What I’ve expressed above doesn’t apply to all languages equally (noted in the third paragraph).

      Some of what you’ve brought up is covered by the idea of code switching, which is as much or more a sociological as a linguistic phenomena. That’s a really interesting topic (see:
      https://philarchive.org/archive/NILCSIv1 ) but not relevant to this post.

      Runyon’s literary skill aside, it’s always tricky accepting fiction uncritically as a historical source for language use. Many issues can get in the way, including the author’s intent, literary license, and transcription choices. It’s not particularly germane to the post, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that writing in the present tense is a common technique; I’ve known many writers to write (or re-write) pieces entirely in present tense, to see if it improves a story (it’s often used as a pacing trick, to amp up the tension or immediacy). I don’t see it as a useful indication of much of anything in English, other than an artistic choice.

      – Chris

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