I love the English language.
I love French too.
I wanted to get that out in the open because today’s blog is apt to irk a few French and English majors, particularly those who love rules and the finer points of grammar. But my fellow Lady Scribes have dubbed me the Countess of Controversy and every once in a while I feel I must live up to my title.
As a child, I knew all the rules of grammar and waved the dictionary at the first sign of unorthodox usage. But as I dabbled in linguistics and history, I learned how words evolve, and I realized languages are as alive as the people who use them.
And the dictionary stifles creativity.
No book or set of rules could ever control a living language. A dictionary is merely a vain attempt to document what speakers have already established. Whether a word or usage is found in the dictionary tells us more about the quality of the dictionary than it does about the speaker.
In fact, strictly enforcing rules of grammar and relying too heavily on dictionaries can kill a language.
Now before you rush off to the comments area to tell me how crazy this is, allow me to offer a real world example:
Consider the French and English colonial empires. At the turn of the 20th century, both countries had millions of subjects who spoke their language.
A hundred years later, English continues to thrive while French has declined to the point where it’s no longer offered at my local high school. On a recent trip to former French colonies, I was surprised to discover that young people spoke more English than French. In fact, the only place where French is de rigueur seems to be the United Nations and international sports competitions like the Olympics and World Cup Soccer.
Throughout the century, the English language has adapted to technological, political, and economic changes while French seems to be on the decline. And that’s partly because of the influence of dictionaries and rules of grammar.
Americans love freedom and scorn anything that smacks of authoritarianism. So we rush about willy-nilly, making up new words, stealing from other languages, turning nouns and adjectives into verbs, and generally flaunting the rules our English professors taught us.
The French, on the other hand, have the Academie Francaise, an official organization whose sole purpose is to keep French pure and make sure that everyone follows precise rules of grammar. When I lived in France, advertisers could be fined for using foreign words and public television content was strictly controlled. New inventions are assigned names based on pre-existing French words. That’s probably why, when my French-speaking nephew said to hand him the “portable”, I had no idea whether he whether he meant the cell phone or the laptop. In an age when technology and communications move at lightspeed, the French are stuck with a rigid, archaic system that can’t keep pace.
No wonder the rest of the world has decided to join in the fun and embrace American English.
So in the interest of the long term survival of the American language, I’ve decided to toss out my dictionary and embrace creative wordplay. If it was good enough for William Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for me.
No longer will I waste time arguing over the proper use of that or which. I will judge contest entries on storytelling, not adherence to some arbitrary set of writers’ rules. And when risk-taking authors final in these contests, my cheers will crescendo louder than all the others. My beloved critique partners will write me little notes, “Umm..you know that’s not a verb, right?” But I’m sure they’ll understand when I tell them not to purple up their prose.
Yes, I know this flagrant disregard for the rules will cause some consternation among grammar purists and dictionary aficionados. But I’ve noticed no one ever complains about bad grammar when they go to Vegas and the hotel comps them a suite. If the story is good enough, they won’t notice my avant-garde usage. Maybe they’ll even adopt it, and someday, it might find its way into a dictionary.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What kind of writer are you? A by-the-book purist who strives to follow every rule? Or a live-and-let-live linguist who’ll accept any construction as long as it makes sense?