On “Proper” English and Objective Legislation

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It’s no secret that English is a constantly shifting, malleable, many-headed beast of a language, yet, much of the time, writers and speakers insist emphatically on obeying its many ostensibly rigid rules.

At The New York Times, linguist John McWhorter writes about the myth of “proper” English:

“We are taught that a proper language makes perfect logical sense, and that allowing changes willy-nilly threatens chaos.”

In the article, McWhorter argues that changes in the English language are akin to shifts in fashion: they have real, tangible effects, but should not be used in any way to infer the “intelligence or moral worth” of a speaker or writer. This notion seems simple, and many may even take it for granted, but its actual practical application is much farther off than it initially seems.

Today at The New Yorker, Alex Carp writes an essay on the writing process of Bryan A. Garner (of Garner’s American Modern Usage) and Justice Antonin Scalia, “grammar nerd” (or SNOOT), co-authors of two books, including Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. Aside from some declarations of extreme personal grammatical taste (Scalia’s belief that contractions are “intellectually abominable, but commercially reasonable,”) the article provides an interesting look at the linguistic rigidity of the impenetrable world of American law.

So why the disconnect between our basic understanding of linguistic fluidity and the dogmatic rigidity of legal texts? Perhaps the desire to create a legal system in which some sort of objective justice is observed precludes the ability to recognize our use of a language constantly in flux in the activity of that system: linguistic fluidity threatens to drown our justice system in “chaos,” as McWhorter writes, to expose it as inept, its judgements as fashion.


Walter Gordon is an intern at The Rumpus. He is a native of Berkeley, CA and goes to college in Oberlin, OH. He spends most of his time reading. His eyes hurt. Other hobbies include photography, writing fiction, and sitting on top of tall piles of rocks. More from this author →