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If the English language is always evolving, why do we need to learn and follow grammatical rules?

First of all, I'd like to say I hope that this won't be considered completely out of topic as my question is rather general (and too long) but after all, I don't know where else to ask if not here.

I'm a non-native speaker (Czech) and in the process of learning I, obviously, encountered a number of cases when I wasn't sure and asked the teacher, a native speaker, or looked the answer up in a book. No problem so far.

I later became an English teacher myself (thank god, those days are gone :) and started being asked various questions, too. This wasn't a problem either - I answered them according to the books and sometimes added a little more of what I knew about "real-life" usage.

Nevertheless, the more you learn about any language (including your own), the more you realize that there are certain truths written in books that are rather simplifications and generalizations - needed for the student to be able to learn things without being overwhelmed by too much information but not precise and exact facts.

That wouldn't be a problem either. It's obvious that you can't discuss all details at the very beginning. But to my surprise (which still lasts), I also found out that there was actually no standardization authority that would have a final say in terms of what is right and what is wrong.

And if you study English books carefully, you will realize that even Cambridge (as the main English testing authority in mainland Europe) and Oxford (as the unofficial language authority) often differ in their interpretations of what is correct and what is not. And American English (which I tend to use) doesn’t even seem to have these.

I do understand that there are big differences not only among American, British, Australian, Canadian, South African... variations of the language but even among regions, classes etc. But someone from a country like mine would somewhat automatically expect that at least for each country there would be an "ultimate authority" which could say that I should use this or that if I want to speak/write correctly.

There are a lot of different dialects in the Czech Republic. Surprisingly many for such a small country. And that's perfectly fine. But if you're not sure what the standard, formal form is, there is the "Dictionary of Standard Czech" and the "Rules of the Czech Language" where you find the ultimate answer. And if you don't, there is the "Institute for the Czech Language" where you can get answers even to the most complicated questions. Germans have the same for their language (remember the argument over the sharp s not so long ago) and I believe so do most European countries.

If you've read this far, you must be curious what my question actually is. OK, here it comes: is all the language talk really just a matter of personal preference or is there any source of information that I can consider final? Does correctness really depend only on how often something is used?

To pick just a few “ever green examples”, is "better than I" or "better than me" correct? Who’s the one to say that “color” is American while “colour” is British or Canadian? When my American friends say "If I would've done that", can they argue that it's correct just because it's used where they're from? Where can I find the line between “generally used” and “accepted as grammatically correct”?

And an additional question: have there ever been attempts (that probably failed) to introduce a general English authority that would have the final say?

I have absolutely nothing against colloquial, slang, spoken language. Actually, who doesn't use it and tries to be hypercorrect at any cost sounds like a moron. But there are moments when you want to consult someone you can trust. And no offense to this site (which I really love) but the answers often resemble rather personal opinions than definite facts. And therefore I'm asking this question to which there is probably no true, correct answer. But it was biting my brain for too long so it had to get out.

marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Dec 10 '12 at 23:22

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 1
    This is a rather complex mix of a whole number of questions, so I am closing it as a duplicate of just that: a rather weird mix of seemingly unrelated questions. All of these do have rather excellent answers, though (and a whole number of related questions linked from them), and I highly recommend that you do take a minute or twenty to check them out. – RegDwigнt Dec 10 '12 at 23:29
  • Language is rule based but they're complicated and they change. So there might be a formal authority, but what people actually do (though still rule based) may just not follow the exact same rules and may have more varieties. But you know that already. The true 'authority' for a native speaker is you grade school English teacher. – Mitch Dec 10 '12 at 23:32
  • @Malis: I think what you may be forgetting is that English (or any other language, with the possible exception of spectacularly unsuccessful Esperanto) wasn't created (and doesn't evolve) in order to be easily taught to/by people of school age and older. In every culture, the basics of language acquisition are largely in place well before then. Some countries (and some languages) do indeed have recognised "authorities" describing/prescribing acceptable forms - but on the whole they don't achieve much, because it's all "too little, too late". – FumbleFingers Dec 11 '12 at 2:20
  • Thanks for the replies. @RedDwight My question might have been somewhat lost in a number of "examples". But you are probably right that it is a duplicate of the first proposed link (which I did not find, sorry). – Malis Dec 11 '12 at 8:56
  • @Mitch and @ FumbleFingers I was not implying that English was "designed to be easily taught" or that there are no rules. All I was trying to say that it is (or at least often seems so) hard to tell an opinion from a fact because even generally recognized authorities disagree and there is no 'last resort authority' to which you can turn. I used "than I/me" just as an example: some tests will consider "I" a wrong answer while others will insist the only grammatically correct version is "me". In real life, both are used. But once again, it was just an example, many more can be found. – Malis Dec 11 '12 at 9:06

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