The Right Coast

January 14, 2005
The Evolution of Grammar
By Mike Rappaport

Quite an interesting post by Eric Rasmussen on the evolution of language. One might think that conservatives are in favor of a static language, where elites instruct the masses in ways that differ from ordinary spoken language. One might also think that liberals are against this sort of instruction. Rasumussen suggests otherwise. He argues that language should evolve rather than remain static, and defends this from a conservative viewpoint. He criticizes liberals for ignoring spoken language and attempting to impose liberal elite positions on the populace.

Liberals are now trying to establish liberalism in the language by the use of grammar rules. They are using gender-neutered language, and not just using it in their own writing, but teaching it in schools and putting it in the manuals of style. This is an example not of evolutionary change so much as a conscious attempt to prescribe new rules that will change spoken usage. Nobody says in everyday speech, "A truckdriver must be careful to stay awake. Otherwise she might have a crash," but you see that kind of thing in academic writing.

The correct approach is for the manuals of style to keep the written language a few decades behind the spoken language, and to make it match spoken language rather than follow consistent rules. Following this philosophy, "hopefully" can now be used to mean "one hopes that" instead of just "with a hopeful attitude", but "he/she" cannot be used in place of "he". This, I think, is Fowler's approach in the classic book mentioned above.