Does standard English has an official authorization?

Oldbie

Member
Chinese - china
I am sorry for asking such stupid question, and I know it is quite complicated, so I will try to make it as simple as possible.

We all know there are a lot of grammar and spelling rules in English, and basically most of us follow the rules to build sentences and to understand the language. If someone breaks the rules, then that the sentence they form will be considered as grammatically incorrect or misspelling.

But what makes me wonder is who authorizes such rules to be foundation of “standard” form of English. For example, legal document needs a restrictive language register to establish. What criterion as a reference determines if legal information written in English is valid or invalid to the targeted situation?

Thanks everyone!
 
  • Oldbie

    Member
    Chinese - china
    Does standard English has have an official authority?
    No, there is no such authority.
    Thanks for pointing out my silly mistake. If there is no authority, how do we determine if it is so-called "standard" or "correct"? All depends on experience?
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    For example, legal document needs a restrictive language register to establish. What criterion as a reference determines if legal information written in English is valid or invalid to the targeted situation?
    Specifically for legal documents:

    Attorneys study this. Each area (in the US, each state) has developed as a set of criteria for "what words and phrases mean in legal documents". That is one reason that attorneys are only licensed for one state. Each state has different criteria for "legal language", and each state has a set of laws. An attorney needs to learn both.

    For general English (in this forum, for example):

    There are widely accepted rules. Over time the rules change, as English changes. And we sometimes disagree. The final authority for most of us is "people say that" or "nobody says that". But we consider some language "slang" or "local dialect" or "incorrect", even if lots of people talk like that. So it is not always clear what is or is not "correct".

    Note that BE and AE (British and American English) have hundreds of differences. So "correct in BE" does not mean "correct in AE".

    We often refer to grammar rules, but grammars do not specify the language. It is the other way around: grammars attempt to describe the real language (what people actually use). Grammars sometimes disagree with each other, and they are never perfect. But they are very useful: they are very good attempts to describe English, by people who study English. This is also true for dictionaries. Nowadays we all use on-line dictionaries. The people working for each dictionary company are continually updating and improving on-line dictionaries.

    The French language has an official authority: a group in the French government. English does not.
     

    castagnaccio

    Senior Member
    UK
    Italian
    For British English, the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries, which I assume are somewhat related to the two universities, are the unofficial reference, with regards to grammar, punctuation and pronunciation.

    In Italy, we have the "Accademia della Crusca" and "Enciclopedia Treccani". They are the official authorities for the Italian language and what they say is law.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    We don't follow dictionaries because they are 'right' about usage. The opposite is true. They are right because they accurately describe how people actually use words.
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Note that English belongs to the category of languages without official prescripted rules, while Chinese (Mandarin) and many other languages belong to the category with official prescripted rules. However, even English has unofficial criteria of what is correct or incorrect language. Internet is full of advice from self nominated gurus that tell us about "most usual errors made by native English speakers".
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    We don't follow dictionaries because they are 'right' about usage. The opposite is true. They are right because they accurately describe how people actually use words.
    Exactly. Many years ago a lexicographer (an editor of one of the OUP dictionaries) was interviewed on television. The interviewer, Bernard Levin, was a master of English prose, but something of a prescriptivist. The lexicographer made it clear that his job was not to prescribe, but to describe. He said he regarded himself as a marshal of the language. In practice though it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Someone once said that "good" English is what good writers write and good writers write "good" English. If a dictionary is a record of "good" English it is inevitable that it will be used as a guide.
     

    Pedro y La Torre

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    The French language has an official authority: a group in the French government. English does not.
    This is incorrect. The Académie française (which I presume you are referring to) has no official power whatever and is not part of the government. Indeed, its rulings are usually flouted. The French Ministry of Education can and does set education standards with regard to the French language, but this is no different to any other country (Ireland's Department of Education does the same thing with regard to English and Irish). In Quebec, the Office québécois de la langue française is part of the provincial government and so does have sway, but even there, its rulings are usually advisory. There is no "supra-national" authority for the French language. This is a common misconception among English-speakers.
     

    Pedro y La Torre

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    Exactly. Many years ago a lexicographer (an editor of one of the OUP dictionaries) was interviewed on television. The interviewer, Bernard Levin, was a master of English prose, but something of a prescriptivist. The lexicographer made it clear that his job was not to prescribe, but to describe. He said he regarded himself as a marshal of the language. In practice though it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Someone once said that "good" English is what good writers write and good writers write "good" English. If a dictionary is a record of "good" English it is inevitable that it will be used as a guide.
    It seems to me that there is a cultural aspect underlying this discussion. The idea appears to be that English is a language that reflects the history of England and its colonies (Canada, the U.S., Australia etc.), that is to say it is ruggedly individualistic and will, by its very nature, not submit to some overarching and possibly tyrannical authority. However, English is akin to virtually every other language out there, the standard is decided by those in positions of authority and drummed into people via the school system, and later, gasps of disapproval in job interviews.

    Of course there is no single body to decide what is right and what is wrong, but is there any language that truly operates in this manner?
     
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    Delvo

    Senior Member
    American English
    Of course there is no single body to decide what is right and what is wrong, but is there any language that truly operates in this manner?
    It might be that way for government purposes in China, the nation of the person who started this conversation by asking about it. But I think the reason would be a bit different. China has more variation than most countries, with not only separate languages but also separate dialects of the same language. There could be not just a single language but even a single dialect in which government always communicates. In that case, speakers of other dialects of that language might not need translation but would always think government-talk sounded odd, not like their families or neighbors. The closest analogies I can think of to that are not English but German and Italian. And I know Germany has had some recent changes in official spelling. But having a standard government dialect doesn't necessarily require an agency writing rules for how that dialect must work; the government could simply pick which dialect to use and use it.
     
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