As you might expect, it's rarely a simple answer and opinions are often divided. For members of the declinist to-hell-in-a-handcart brigade (aka the prescriptivists), like Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss, our language (usually ours, not theirs) is permanently at risk from the eroding winds of change and the tides of textual degradation.
In a recent piece for The Daily Telegraph (which you'll be reading/working on now if you're in one of my A2 classes), Lynne Truss bemoaned what she saw as the increasingly blurred distinction between single and compound words such as any way/anyway and may be/maybe, declaring - in a slightly hyperbolic and tongue in cheek fashion, I hope - that "the English language as we know it was hereby doomed, and we might as well all go off and kill ourselves". Furthermore, she blames it on technology and the Americanisation of English, those familiar enemies of traditional English throughout time (Remember how the printing press simply ruined English and how American English insists on having more logical spelling?).
Erin Brenner, writing for Visual Thesaurus magazine in the USA (subscription needed, so just a brief quote here) takes issue with Truss, stating that
Truss and other language commentators like her bug me. They make proclamations from on high that conform to their ideal of English but have no relationship with how we really use English. They make broad statements about the state of English without any evidence. They offer little to no reasoning for their preferences, and they offer no proof of their statements.
In today's Guardian, David Marsh (author of For Who The Bell Tolls and one of The Guardian's style gurus) contextualises clashes like those between Truss and Brenner within a much longer struggle between the descriptivists and prescriptivists. In his article, The Pedants' Revolt, he argues that
Conservatives long for a golden age, usually about 50 years in the past, when everyone knew their grammar and all was right with the world. "What is more, even Grammar, the basis of all education, baffles the brains of the younger generation today ... There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter" – not Michael Gove, but William Langland (born 1332!). Sadly, there never was a golden age.For Truss and her prescriptivist pals, descriptivism is a form of laissez-faire, let-it-all-hang-out liberalism that has allowed the language to sink into disrepair and a car crash of OMGs and LOLs. In her Telegraph article she attacks descriptivism. Using not one, but two Jean Aitchison metaphors in the same paragraph, she says:
Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.
So, is language like a disease? Or a crumbling castle? And where's the damp spoon? As Aitchison herself pointed out in her Reith Lecture A Web of Worries (still available here as an mp3) rigid systems aren't much help with a changing language and tend to stand in the way of the new language that we need to describe a changing world. As for language as a disease, Aitchison explains that we don't catch change like a nasty dose of flu, but we choose our language styles.
And do descriptivists sit back and allow change to take place, documenting it as everything goes to hell in a handcart or to sh*t in a shovel? Well, language is changing all the time - even the most ardent prescriptivist will acknowledge that - so why not learn to understand and describe those changes? Does doing so, amount to embracing those changes? Not really. Most descriptivists would still argue that Standard English is important because it allows mutual intelligibility (i.e a chance to understand each other through a shared language) but they might disagree that certain uses are 'correct' or 'incorrect'. They argue that it's not a clear cut, black and white distinction. Michael Rosen makes exactly this point in an article about grammar for The Guardian in 2012:
If we are serious about enabling those who want to acquire what we have called standard English then first we should be honest about change and its lack of encoded rules. Then, together with them, we should look closely at how such people's speech and writing diverges from the kind of English that they would like to acquire. There will always be social reasons for this and knowing these helps people take on the dialects they don't fully speak or write.This isn't easy. We shouldn't pretend it's easy.
Steven Pinker, whose amazing hair is to heads what David Crystal's beard is to chins, argues in an article for The New Yorker, False Fronts in the Language Wars, that we shouldn't see the world in such simple terms as descriptivist versus prescriptivist:
According to the sadly standard dichotomy, prescriptivists believe that certain usages are inherently correct and others inherently incorrect, and that to promote correct forms is to uphold truth, morality, excellence, and a respect for the best of our civilization. To indulge incorrect ones, meanwhile, is to encourage relativism, vulgar populism, and the dumbing down of literate culture.
Descriptivists, according to this scheme, believe that norms of correctness are arbitrary shibboleths of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, and the people should be given the freedom to write however they please.
Instead he argues that - very much like David Marsh in The Guardian - once we accept that the "rules" are not rules at all and instead "tacit conventions", we realise that it's all a matter of taste and appropriacy. If we are educated to a certain level of literacy to make our choices about what we want to say - you and I, me and him, ain't doing nothing - then we have control over our own language and an understanding of others' language.
As Pinker goes on to say, "The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion". For Pinker, there's a need for prescriptive rules to help police what has been agreed as being Standard English at a given time, but there's no need for prescriptive points-scoring or for claiming that one form is superior to another.
So, perhaps we should be pleased that there is a debate at all. The tension between prescriptivists and descriptivists is actually exerting a creative force over our language: the prescriptivist urge to keep things together, to make things stay the same, is constantly in opposition to the natural inclination of language to change and vary, and for descriptivists to document and recognise that change. Maybe one can't live without the other.