Since Jonathan Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, two centuries of self-appointed correctors and improvers of English usage - such as Robert Lowth, HW Fowler, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss, and Neville Gwynne - have decried the decadent state of our language and instructed people on how to use it better. But what have they accomplished?
自从1712年Jonathan Swift的“纠正，改进和确定英语口语”提议以来，那些自封的英语用法矫正者们和改进者们，像是Robert Lowth, HW Fowler, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss, 和Neville Gwynne，两个世纪以来，他们抨击我们语言里的颓废表达，并指导人们怎样更好地使用语言。但是他们都做成了一些什么？
They have helped enforce agreement that there should be a standard version of the language. They have not, however, managed to set the exact details of that standard. They have not even agreed whether long words or short ones are better. And the stream of the language has flowed on despite the damning practices prescribed by grammar doctors in the 1700s and 1800s that often look old-fashioned or bizarre now : no one writes snatcht, checkt, or snapt : no one uses colons as I am doing in this sentence.
The language cannot be fixed in place, and its constant evolution does not always follow the tastes of its self-appointed guardians. Some of their proposed improvements have had inglorious careers: a rule - don’t split infinitives, don’t end sentences with prepositions, don’t start sentences with conjunctions - is decided in defiance of established usage. It is promulgated in books, taught in schools, and often used as an indicator of a writer’s level of education, yet it continues to be broken - productively by some (including many of the best writers), sloppily by others, guiltily by many.
One important effect the English-improvers have had, however, is on how people feel and talk about English usage. They have taught generations of English speakers that ‘bad English’ is a failure of intellectual and moral fibre. Consider the adjectives they have used to condemn choices of words they disagreed with.
Jonathan Swift, in 1712, talked of “Corruptions,” “Licentiousness,” and “barren” usages; Robert Lowth, in 1799, applied terms such as “perverted” and “barbarous”; Richard Grant White, in 1872, used phrases such as “utterly abominable”, “foolish and intolerable”, and said they showed “utter want of education and a low grade of intelligence” (and these against words such as donate, jeopardise, and preventative). HW Fowler in 1908 spoke of “barbaric” usages, and the “special ugliness” that comes from a word with a “mongrel origin”, and counselled readers that “The effect of using quotation marks with slang is merely to convert a mental into a moral weakness.” George Orwell in 1946 inveighed against “slovenliness” and “sheer incompetence.”
To be fair, these angry grammarians did not invent discrimination based on speech. Anywhere there are different varieties of a language associated with different regions and different social sets, the way you talk will show what group you belong to, and people will decide on that basis how to treat you. What these umpires of the English language have enabled and abetted is scorn based purely on details of the language itself rather than on extrinsic social differences.
It’s not so surprising that people over the centuries have wanted to tidy it all up. But attempts at improvement have not been unequivocally successful, to say the least, and the tone in which they have been presented has done further injury. It’s bad enough that we have to worry about being clear and consistent; thanks to the weaponisation of English grammar and vocabulary, we also have to worry about being seen as degenerate barbarian imbeciles.