It’s a perpetual lament: The purity of the English language is under assault. These days we are told that our ever-texting teenagers can’t express themselves in grammatical sentences. The media delight in publicizing ostensibly incorrect usage. A few weeks ago, pundits and columnists lauded a Wikipedia editor in San Jose, Calif., who had rooted out and changed no fewer than 47,000 instances where contributors to the online encyclopedia had written “comprised of” rather than “composed of.” Does anyone doubt that our mother tongue is in deep decline?
Well, for one, I do. It is well past time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books.
As children, we all have the instinct to acquire a set of rules and to apply them. Any toddler is already a grammatical genius. Without conscious effort, we combine words into sentences according to a particular structure, with subjects, objects, verbs, adjectives and so on. We know that a certain practice is a rule of grammar because it’s how we see and hear people use the language.
That’s how scholarly linguists work. Instead of having some rule book of what is “correct” usage, they examine the evidence of how native and fluent nonnative speakers do in fact use the language. Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct.