To the chagrin of some and the pleasure of many, English is lacking in any authority to direct its ever-expanding use and lexicon. L’Académie Française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. For Spanish, there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für Deutsche Rechtschreibung. There has never been an equivalent academy for the English language anywhere or at any time.
Historically, there have been a number of outspoken and clearly distressed men of letters who believed that English, with all its unruliness, desperately needed a formal academy.
In the mid-17th century, John Dryden, a poet laureate of England, chaired a committee to create such an academy. Unfortunately, as Dryden was attempting to organize, the Great Plague struck London. A year later, the Great Fire of London razed central parts of the city. These events resulted in an equally great exodus from the capital and any hope for an academy was lost.
In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift, best known for his prose satire, Gulliver’s Travels, lobbied the crown for an academy. He stated, “Our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but passed away before any formal decisions could be made.
In the U.S., a bill for the incorporation of a national language academy was introduced in congress in 1806 but was unsuccessful. During Quincy Adams’ presidency two decades later, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was proposed and then abandoned after receiving little political or public support.
So… whatcha do?
Language references like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and style guides such as the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage are what many people consider to be at least semi-authoritative. Dictionaries are generally descriptive in that they reflect the organic usage and evolution of English but don’t set out to dictate how the language is to be used. Style guides, on the other hand, are prescriptive; an approach that recommends how the language should be used when composing documents.
A style guide establishes standard style requirements to improve communication by ensuring consistency within a single document and across multiple documents. A style guide may set out standards in areas such as punctuation, capitalization, citing sources, formatting of numbers and dates, and table appearance. A guide may outline recommendations in language composition, visual composition, orthography, and typography. For academic and technical documents, users often reference guides for best practices in ethics such as authorship, research ethics, and disclosure. In pedagogy, users look for guidance in exposition and clarity, or compliance, both technical and regulatory. Of course, all this will depend on the register of the user.
Register, in a general sense, refers to the language used by a group of people who share similar work, research, or interests, and the degree of formality of the language used when creating documents. Document requirements, though they often overlap, will differ by necessity between different groups, such as doctors, lawyers, journalists, and scholars.
For British English, style guides such as H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and Sir Ernest Gower’s Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English are very influential. The Modern Humanities Research Association Style Guide (MHRA) is mainly for writing theses. Judith Butcher’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook is a reference guide for editors and those involved in preparing typescripts and illustrations for printing and publication.
In the U.S., The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook contains commonly accepted journalistic standards most U.S. newspapers, magazines, and broadcast writers use as their go-to style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style is used by writers, editors, and publishers in fiction and nonfiction and often put to use in the arts and humanities for academic papers. The Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook is mostly suited to the academic world. The Elements of Style is a writer’s companion and considered to be the grandfather of all style guides.
For those looking for humorous and unapologetically opinionated voices on the English language, there are many authors more than willing to assert their preferences, bemoan the inadequacies of our current authorities, and thoroughly berate speakers of the language. They include the Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon’s Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar, The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide for the Careful Speaker, and Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (a popular book that was excoriated for its grammatical errors when first published).
For a fascinating look at the gargantuan effort of documenting a language, you may enjoy The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in reading why Pikes Peak is spelled without an apostrophe by law! Check out the reason the U.S. doesn’t have an official language or how English became the official language of the sea and air!
Craft activities can be excellent hands-on learning tools! Whether you teach very young newcomers or secondary ESL students, Donald’s English Classroom has a variety of activities that your students are sure to enjoy. Check out the Seasons Tree Stand or House Activity Set for your younger students. For students learning community places, you’ll love using the Community Places Activity Set that includes game boards and flashcards. For older students, building Wall Maps are excellent activities to bring students together.