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First let me state the obvious—based on my own experience—that hordes of people are confused about certain basic grammar principles. For example, I so often see mistakes in choosing the pronoun to use with direct objects, especially when introduced by and with another person, as in "the only people who passed the test were Anna and I." Another one is the near 100% usage of "lay" instead of "lie" (and "laid" instead of "lay") nowadays, even in published sci-fi books that most certainly had professional editors proofread them.

Do you see these kinds of changes as predictors of the future? Will they become "correct" after enough people have used them long enough? Both of these problems drive me bonkers, and I fight my own little battle against them when possible.

I know that dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They're technically history books. But grammar and style books seem less so, to me. Those seem as though they ought to be prescriptive in order to reduce the erosion of structured and meaningful language.

In this tension between "what people are doing" and "what people should be doing," are we doomed to forever bear these errors just because too many people don't know the proper way? Is it worth fighting against them? Do I capitulate to the people who are quick to accept any mass public usage as a fait accompli?

Update

I don't imagine for a second that my own writing is error free. The difference with me is that when I do learn I have something wrong in my mind, I immediately change once I clearly understand it.

I also am not imagining that language is static or ignorant that today's correctness is all too often yesterday's error. The whole point of my question here, then, is: is there value in slowing the change, and if so, how is that done and how effectively?

Another way to look at what I'm trying to ask is that in a way I am hoping to define the limits of pedantry. If being pedantic is slavish adherence to outdated rules in the face of actual and foregone changed reality, then when do we conclude that a change is a foregone conclusion?

Poking fun at my own errors to highlight supposed pedantry on my part is to miss everything I am trying to say.

Update 2

It may not be an easy question, but since language change actually does or does not happen, and every person acts with more or less intention in regards to language change, there must be an answer. What I wanted to explore is the value in efforts to teach the "proper way" vs. the opposite end of the spectrum where any new usage is not just accepted but welcome or even sought out. You know, I'm reminded of something: the conservative/liberal scale:

   |------+------+------+------+------+------|
radical              moderate             radical
liberal                                 conservative

The funny thing about those at the ends of the spectrum is that they both want things to change. The radical liberal wants language to change to something new quickly, just for the sake of newness or evolution or some other not-necessarily-realistic ideal. Similarly, the radical conservative wants things to change just as much, but back to the way it used to be, just for the sake of sameness or continuity or some other just-as-not-necessarily-realistic ideal.

I'm not particularly asking where we should be on this scale as that's purely subjective. I'm trying to ask about something purely practical and real-world: what is actually effective? Is language change inevitable, and how fast? Are efforts to reduce its rapid morphing either effective or worthwhile in any measure? All these things considered, what position with respect to language evolution is livable, practical, and sensible?

Feel free to edit my grammar. No comment necessary.

Update 3

Something that may be of interest to both my supporters and detractors: this 'Kinetic Typography' video by Stephen Fry. I enjoyed it. I don't disagree with him, but I am not sure I am wholehearted in this lack of disagreement.

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Some people don't even set foreign expressions like fait accompli in italics! –  moioci Sep 26 '10 at 5:18
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Very similar to english.stackexchange.com/questions/2773/… –  moioci Sep 26 '10 at 5:22
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With your update, I wonder if your question is answerable anymore. –  Kosmonaut Sep 26 '10 at 20:51
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Reading through this question, I feel like it is more like a proposal for a graduate thesis than it is a question that could be answered by people on this site. A proper answer would be book-length and take years to research. –  nohat Sep 27 '10 at 20:40
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@Emtucifor - please lighten up. I personally do not think that @moioci wanted to insult you in any way. Especially I do not see mental restriction in making a lightly humorous comment nor in his explanation of it. If this is the tone of reaction to others we are going to cultivate in this site, then the site is on a moral decline. Granted, this is not as frightening and important as a language being doomed (but languages live and change over time, and so do grammar rules). But then, moral collaps in general is more frightening than applying a grammatical rule the wrong way. –  malach Oct 21 '10 at 7:21
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6 Answers

up vote 34 down vote accepted

We are most likely "doomed" in that these changes are more or less inevitable. But we are not "doomed" in the sense that the language is actually breaking or somehow falling apart. Languages have been around for thousands of years, evolving and changing; no language has ever evolved itself into a corner or created a construction that makes the language non-functional.

Many of the "correct" English words and constructions that we use today got their start as stupid-sounding "mistakes". Our case and gender systems have almost vanished completely, for example.

In fact, if I am not mistaken, a couple hundred years ago, "the only people who passed the test were Anna and I" would have been the pedantically correct version, and "Anna and me" would have been the sloppy "wrong" version; it used to be that the copula would have nominative case on both sides (e.g. "it is I", not "it is me"). Maybe that puts things into perspective a bit.

If you find certain things silly, there is nothing wrong with feeling that way and avoiding them — and not all variations become mainstream. But, it is pointless to try to make any significant effort to stop these changes. Mainly because it is inevitable, but also because you'd only be protecting a momentary instance of a thing that is constantly in flux.

(Edit: I should also add that I don't even necessarily agree with you in the case of lay and lie. Most people don't even know the correct paradigm for conjugating these verbs. I interpret the changes in popular usage to mean that these verbs are undergoing regularization; the old paradigm seems to be inherently confusing and I welcome the change: the language is fixing itself. I thought this might also be an interesting point of view to consider.)

Addendum based on the question's first edit: I recommend reading up on Standard Arabic to consider attempts to stop language change in its tracks. Because Muslims believe that the Arabic used in the Quran is holy, they have attempted to maintain this version of Arabic. This Standard Arabic is the only "official" Arabic, it is the only one they learn in schools, and it is the only one they write in. But, in day-to-day use, you can't stop language change. Instead, every region has evolved a distinct dialect (and these "dialects" really stretch the definition of that word to its breaking point). In many cases, they are not mutually intelligible (for example, Moroccan Arabic and Baghdad Arabic), and nobody in the Middle East actually speaks Standard Arabic as a first language. Most people have an imperfect command of it anyway except for the most highly educated. Most of the time, if speakers of different dialects want to communicate, they speak in a simplified hybrid of their own dialects and Standard Arabic (leaving off things like case marking that exists in SA). The Standard form has become different enough from their spoken language that they can't actually manage to follow the rules automatically.

This also means that if I want to learn useful Arabic, I have to learn Standard Arabic to read and for some TV programs, and I have to learn another language in order to actually communicate with the people around me. There is not much practical benefit to this system (but they aren't doing it for practical reasons).

If for some reason we decide to freeze English as it is now and make a concerted effort to maintain this form as it is, we will inevitably end up with the same messy diglossia situation that they experience now in the Middle East.

Addendum after second edit: I can't keep up with this moving target :)

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Good answer, this gives a fair overview. –  Noldorin Sep 26 '10 at 16:50
    
Hmmm. I appreciate all your interaction, Kosmonaut. I'm surprised that my question is such a moving target to you. Perhaps I need to take some writing skills classes so I can start my question the way I want it to finish. However, reading everything at once I am not so convinced that I'm jumping around all that much. Many of the sentences from my first-posted question would fit very naturally at the end of my second update. The ideas have a fitting circularity to them. –  ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 5:09
    
This situation with Standard Arabic seems wonderful to me. (We have a similar situation back home, with Kannada and Tamil at least.) If not for these standard versions that everyone was taught and near-fastidiously followed in formal speech and all writing, the different "dialects" would more or less have to be considered different languages, as they can often get mutually unintelligible. –  ShreevatsaR Mar 2 '11 at 20:34
    
@ShreevatsaR: Well, the problem is that the standard language is considered the only language in those countries. So, in contrast to, say, Holland, where everyone learns English along with Dutch, you only learn the Standard Arabic. It would be like if people only learned English in Holland but spoke Dutch day-to-day. Ideally, the various countries in the Middle East would teach their "dialect" (which really is already its own language) AND Standard Arabic. People manage fine with two formally taught languages. –  Kosmonaut Mar 2 '11 at 22:36
    
The governments probably don't want to lend legitimacy & independent existence to these dialects/languages. Maybe they feel Standard Arabic provides some sort of cultural unity. If that's their goal besides maintaining the language of the Quran, they're perfectly entitled to it. If they taught the spoken dialects formally, they'd start being used in books etc, making it less necessary to learn Standard Arabic. (And don't say the dialects can't gain any more since they already exist: in many languages there's a minor revolution when authors start using the spoken version instead of the formal.) –  ShreevatsaR Mar 10 '11 at 20:26
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You asked,

If being pedantic is slavish adherence to outdated rules in the face of actual and foregone changed reality, then when do we conclude that a change is a foregone conclusion?

My answer: change has always been a foregone conclusion. Trying to stop English from changing is like trying to stop the tide.

A possibly-relevant quote:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
- James Nicoll

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Love the quote. –  Kosmonaut Sep 27 '10 at 1:08
    
But I was referring to particular changes. Not all changes that are extant now will survive! And while one can't hold back the ocean forever, it can be channeled and directed. I like the clever quote and have heard it before, but I'm not so sure that just because change is inevitable that this means all attempts to slow that change are useless or undesirable. –  ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 5:08
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Not all changes that are extant now will survive—and not all that has remained unchanged will stay that way. Grammar and spelling styles come and go based on time/location/culture, and no amount of prescriptive nagging can change that. My honest advice: Learn to observe it and then learn to enjoy it. Language is a living thing, and you can no more stop it from evolving than you can keep a kitten from becoming a cat. –  Dori Sep 27 '10 at 5:25
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+1 for the quote :) –  FireAphis Sep 27 '10 at 15:27
    
Trying to resist the temptation to edit (or, more controversially, "correct") "quote" to "quotation." ;) –  hdgarrood Aug 15 '13 at 10:36
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We are not doomed. We've never been in a better position.

Just think of the fact that we can now ask a question like yours and immediately have people reading, answering and discussing it.

Think of the Wikipedias, all the online dictionaries, the blogs about languages, writing, etc. This is all new. For people who want it, there has never been a better moment to be prepared to read, write and speak correctly.

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Doomed! Doomed, I tell you!!

This is a never-ending complaint. Periodically, some one sounds off about it.

The king is dead. Long live the King.

Get over it.

Grammar and spelling are the servants of communication, but are far from essential. "Ugh!" Once meant (and still could mean) "Hey Ogg! Look out for that sabre-tooth tiger!". Language is great fun, but don't mistake the content for the container.

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Loved the linked article! –  ErikE Sep 28 '10 at 16:22
    
Actually, the concept of meaning being the content and language the container is a disputed one. See The Problem With Our Thinking About Communication and the follow-up A Useful Way of Thinking About Communication. –  ErikE Oct 23 '10 at 0:30
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Yes, we're doomed. In fact, I don't think the types of errors you are pointing out aren't even worth worrying about, given that even the BBC can't seem to correctly choose between "to" and "too". "There's" (instead of "there are") seems to be used and accepted by more or less everybody these days. And don't get me started on its/it's, there/they're, etc.

Yes, we're doomed. Luckily, in almost all cases, it doesn't really matter.

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If grammar doesn't really matter, then why are we doing this? –  ErikE Sep 26 '10 at 7:50
    
don't / aren't ? –  ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 16:16
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"Is language change inevitable, and how fast?"

Yes, it's inevitable. In terms of actual 'core vocabulary' drift, I believe it is possible to derive an approximate glottochronological rate of change, which seems to have historically been at about 20% per century.

That is, there is roughly a one-in-five probability that a core vocabulary word or phrase will have "mutated" on us in a hundred years.

To my understanding, it's a little more difficult to measure adherence to grammatical standards over time. My sense is that these rules too are fluid on larger timescales like centuries and millenia, but that their evolution is somehow different than the particular 'words' that they structure.

(Much more speculatively speaking: It is likely that people are always and perhaps without knowing it creating new words and phrases, but also and more slowly wrestling against a 'spirit of gravity' embodied in linguistic axioms. We fight against this 'master of the earth' by bringing to light new movements and becomings that aren't diagrammable in the form of a tree (certain poems, for instance); in other words, beneath the flow of words, there is a long war against the 'tyranny of heaven'.

I am even tempted to claim that grammaticality is already a politics of subjectivity, and that by confronting the arborescent 'stasis' of a language composed of subjects and objects, we assent to the 'real' language, which flows in all directions at once, spreading like a patch of oil, like life itself which also brings furious celerities to bear against gravity.)

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