The world’s most widespread (and, some say, most important) language is a completely democratic language controlled only by those who use it. Grammar, spelling, and usage change as the people who use the language decide to change it. New words arrive and old words vanish. What is correct for one generation might be incorrect for the next one. Sentence structure might change from generation to generation, and even pronunciation changes with time.
In the past, many famous people have called for some kind of English academy, but they have always been ignored. In 1697, Daniel Defoe called for a committee to “polish, refine, and purge” the language. Jonathan Swift also demanded such a committee, as did many others. But it never happened.
As Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote in the late 18th century, “May the lexicographer be derided who…shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language and secure it from corruption and decay…” Closer to our own time, Walt Whitman wrote, “This is the tongue that spurns laws.” And, of course, we should always remember what Noah Webster wrote in 1806 “…it is fortunate for the language and for those who use it, that this doctrine did not prevail in the reign of Henry the Fourth, for it was as just then as it is now; and had all changes in spelling ceased at that period, what a spectacle of deformity would our language now exhibit!”
So where do we look for guidance? In the United Kingdom and in most of the Dominions, the Oxford English Dictionary is revered as the ultimate guide, whereas in North America, Merriam Webster’s is the preferred dictionary. However, there are many other publishers on both sides of the Atlantic turning out dictionaries. And they often disagree.
As to style guides, there is an astonishing number. Oxford and Cambridge each have their own style. The Times of London has its style, and so does the New York Times. Almost every academic discipline has a style manual, too, as do many major journals and even companies like Microsoft.
There are, among many others, the AMA style guide, the MLA handbook, the AP stylebook, and the U.S. Printing Office style manual. Somewhere in this jungle the Chicago Manual of Style manages to stand out, but there are other popular style books like Strunk and White” The Elements of Style and the popular Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
The result of this extraordinary anarchy is a vibrant and vigorous language that is marvelously flexible, constantly changing, eagerly grasping the new, and quickly abandoning the old. English is lively and colorful and both a puzzle and delight to those who use it.
But it is not complete anarchy. There is a formidable police force of editors, writers, and eagle-eyed English teachers, as well as quite a few nitpicking grammar mavens, who try to keep us in line. Over the years, rules have emerged and all careful writers try to follow them. But the rules can usually be bent as long as the prime objective is attained…and this is clear and unambiguous communication.