I was taught since kindergarten that "ain't" isn't a proper English word.

I was wondering, who determines which words are acceptable and which words are not? Do words ever go from "improper" to acceptable? What are some examples and what caused the change?


7 Answers 7


The evolution of a language is the result of human interaction and socio-cultural changes over time.

Pop culture of various generations play on the kind of language we use. The people of the 1900s would not have envisioned that 'google' would become a standard word, although having just one function: an action of searching up on google.com. Such is the proliferation of the Google phenomenon within our generation's culture that is clearly shown by this.

It's like an internet meme; change starts in a small way in small communities, and spreads to others who have not heard of it, through word of mouth, or by themselves experiencing it. Through this way, it spreads and once it really catches on, it becomes a viral phenomenon. So, like English, words (and even how they are pronounced) are not decided by a few professors in a secluded enclave somewhere on this earth. Collectively, the entire English-speaking world (or in other words, all of us!) decide the rules. If a way of doing things catches on, they eventually become the convention, and if we feel that a certain way we have been doing things for a very long time is not in need for change, then it remain the way it is.


Putting aside "dead" languages such as Latin, all others do actually evolve. At any given time a broad swathe of words / constructs fall somewhere between the two extremes of "definitely bad English" on one side, and "well-formed and appropriate" on the other.

An element may drift out or into of that middle band to or from either extreme, possibly repeatedly. Normally, no individual or organisation exerts much influence on most of this drift.

To put it briefly, nobody determines what's acceptable. But whatever most of us endorse individually gradually tends to become the publicised "standard".

  • All speakers (not just grammarians) have a natural tendency to identify and promote some kind of "logic" within language, but there are always bits (not just transitional forms) that just don't fit. The constant jostling to make things fit becomes in itself one of the factors affecting the evolution of a language. Mar 31, 2011 at 3:19

Democracy - it becomes correct through use.
"To boldly go" is wrong if you believe latin word order should apply to English but is now much more common and popular than "To go boldly"

I suspect "To be or not to be" was once frowned on

  • Why would Latin word order apply to English?
    – Evik James
    Sep 15, 2011 at 23:03
  • 1
    @EvikJames because somebody says so. It's not so much word order (which is actually much flexible in Latin than English) but the fact that it's physically impossible to split an infinitive in Latin. There is a mistake in the "now" of "now much more common", because the idea that you shouldn't split infinitives is quite recent (19th, maybe 18th C). That the idea is now pretty much dead is a return to tradition, not a departure from it.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 13, 2013 at 12:36

Well, stop and think about it for a minute: who would determine which words are acceptable and what would be the magical property of that person that meant that they were the "acceptable" person to determine such things?

If you actually probe your kindergarten teacher further about what intrinsically makes such-and-such a word intrinsically "unacceptable", I suspect they won't actually have a rational answer: it's probably their personal opinion, or possibly they've just "read it somewhere" etc ("Well, we were always taught that...").

Nonetheless, it's an interesting phenomenon that people seem to expect there to be some kind of authority or "right" answer. We've all been in the Scrabble game where your opponent has to look up a word that they use on a daily basis just to "check that it's a real word", as though the editor of the CA-CF section of their Collins dictionary had been bestowed with God's mobile number and was thus able to give "the" answer that no other human being was able to give.

The extreme of this is when dictionary definitions are used to settle legal disputes. One major computer hardware manufacturer, for example, quotes in its contract with developers the definition of "pornography" given by Webster's dictionary, implicitly bestowing upon that particular dictionary's editors some kind of legal authority to give "the" definition-- it would be interesting to know where the drafters of the contract believe that authority to actually stem from...

  • Your last statement is very interesting, intriguing.
    – Evik James
    Sep 15, 2011 at 23:04

The French have their Académie française, but there is no equivalent for English.

Instead of an institution, we adopt and adapt words when they are deemed to be sufficiently common. Who deems them so? Well, for one, the Oxford English Dictionary, who claim to be the definitive record of the English language. They recently added OMG and LOL.


As to your last question: yes, many words go from slang or dialect to become standard, and some go the other way.

Joseph AddisonAddison famously railed against the slang word "mob" in 1711, but it has since become standard.

On the other hand, W S Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan), writing in the 1880's, put "he don't" in the mouths of upper-class characters.


I think all of these answers have valid points, none actually answers the question.

Proper English is the language (words and syntax) you would "limit" yourself to using in front of people whose respect you would want to earn.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.