Who Determines Language Standards?

By Mark Nichol

My recent post about declining writing standards garnered some thoughtful comments from site visitors, but as I read them I realized that the post had not addressed one cogent point: As one reader put it, “Who or what determines if a standard is indeed prevailing, or is on the way out?”

In the sciences and social sciences, the latest studies and reports, codifying more or less of a consensus on current knowledge, are published in journals and books for dissemination within professional and academic communities. In a similar fashion, dictionaries, encyclopedias, style guides, and writing handbooks serve as a body of knowledge for writers and editors to draw on. But writers must recognize the functions these secondary sources do and do not serve.

Dictionaries are sources of record for current usage. They demonstrate how to spell and pronounce terms, which part(s) of speech the terms represent, the various inflected forms a term may take, and each term’s definitions (often annotated with usage examples), as well as etymological information. However, dictionaries are in general descriptive, not prescriptive: They record how terms are used, not how they should be used, although some dictionaries will include in various entries a note explaining that a certain usage may be considered substandard or incorrect. Dictionaries, however, do not serve as authorities on syntax, style, and punctuation (except regarding capitalization of proper nouns and, as far as the latter subject is concerned, in the case of hyphenation).

Similarly, encyclopedias summarize current knowledge about topics, which may be helpful in defining a term or at least in employing it properly in the context of a piece of content in which the topic is mentioned. But encyclopedias do not provide guidance on grammar, syntax, style, and punctuation (with the exceptions mentioned for dictionaries above).

Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style (the leading resource for book publishers) and the Associated Press Style Book (the primary authority for newspapers) aid writers and editors in questions of capitalization and abbreviation, and use of punctuation, numbers, and symbols, while the former also (starting a few editions back) provides assistance on grammar—and exhaustive detail about bibliographies, references, and other components of scholarly publications. Garner’s Modern American Usage, meanwhile, painstakingly prescribes how words and phrases should and should not be employed, while numerous writing and editing handbooks provide further advice about how to compose exemplary content.

But from where do the publishers of these resources derive their authority? Thumb through Bryan A. Garner’s tome, or browse a good dictionary (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and its online counterpart are exemplars), and you’ll see citations of examples from literature and periodicals. Admittedly, the author or authors select the source material (and in the case of Garner, he often reproduces an excerpt from a publication only to correct it), but reference works strive to preserve a continuity of correctness: What was well-crafted prose yesterday is well-crafted prose today and will be well-crafted prose tomorrow, as long as writers and editors have a common store of references.

That is not so say, however, that these references are static. All such publications are revised, or supplanted by similar resources, as points of usage, grammar, and so on reach a tipping point in evolution. But that’s why I consult the sixteenth edition of Chicago, not the thirteenth, which was current when I began my career in publishing, or Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, originally conceived as a companion to (and a more accessible alternative to) Chicago.

As I mentioned in my previous post, devotion to a bookshelf (or bookmark menu) full of references is a conservative approach. But the English language, and the ends of the means—communication—are well served by making this protected trove of information and knowledge available. The existence of authoritative resources does not prohibit use of nonstandard language, but it guides writers toward successful self-expression based on a set of rules potentially known to all, if they accept the responsibility of adhering to them.

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