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Sorry, Lynne Truss, English is Not Doomed

Recently Lynne Truss, professional pedant, declared in her Telegraph column that English is "doomed."

Her proof?

Someone wrote "It maybe time to act on this" in an email to her.

Certainly there’s a genuine error in the sentence: Maybe should be may be. Maybe is an adverb meaning "uncertainly; perhaps," while may be is a verb phrase, with may acting as an auxiliary verb. What her example sentence means is "it’s possible the time has come to act on this, but that’s not a certainty."

This one email seems to indicate to Truss that "the English language as we know it [is] hereby doomed, and we might as well all go off and kill ourselves." Apparently, we are changing too many phrases into one word for Truss’s liking. While this is an "honourable tradition" in English, we must be "vigilant" against it.

She offers no evidence that the error is widespread or that joining words together is harming English in any way.

She takes potshots at American English speakers and linguists and explains that if the Brits are following this trend of combining words, they’re doing so "unthinkingly."

Truss cites a list of offending words—anyday, anyway, and everyday, for a start—and says we must continue to be able to write such things as:

Is there any way you can do this?

I will love you every day of my life.

The insinuation is that if we accept these one-word forms, we will lose the two-word form’s meanings. That is, we won’t be able to use the noun phrase any way if we accept the adverb anyway.

Let’s be clear: All that’s going on is a change in spelling. All Truss caught was a spelling mistake.

Changing the spelling of a word will not limit your ability to communicate a desired message, either spoken or written. Spelling is, for the most part, arbitrary. A word can have more than one meaning; it can even have opposite meanings if we so choose (witness cleave).

The only word in her list that is a genuine mistake is anyday, and Truss gets that wrong as well.

She claims that it is standard in American English to use anyday for any day. My fellow columnist Jonathon Owen is quick to prove that anyday is rare in American English.

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.

Truss may not be a linguist, but she knows how language works. She knows that language is controlled by its users. Want to prevent everyday from becoming an accepted word? Tell everyone not to use it. Scare them into believing that if everyday becomes standard, we will cease to understand each other.

Truly, I have no problem with writing advice. It’s very useful if you want to be understood by readers or if you want to be accepted by a specific group, such as publishers. But let’s label such advice for what it is: preferences for words, turns of phrases, and other style decisions.

Some styles of writing are more universal than others. In American English, we prefer to use which to introduce restrictive clauses, while in British English, using either which or that is acceptable. This is so ingrained in American English, many people don’t realize it’s not a grammar rule. Yet you are free to choose to use that in a restrictive phrase, and readers are free to think of it what they will.

Here’s the takeaway, dear readers. Remember that all language users, the advisors and the advisees, control language. You control it as much as I do. When you come across claims about language or advice on using it—no matter from whom—be critical thinkers.

Demand from the advisor evidence of a supposed change. Demand proof that such a change is bad. Ask whether such a change is acceptable in some types of writing or speaking but not in others. Demand the advisor go beyond spewing vitriol.

It’s fine for someone to demonstrate that writing maybe for may be or anyday for any day is becoming more common. It’s fine for that person to educate readers on what the difference is. It’s even fine for someone to teach their writing style to others.

What’s not fine is for them to proclaim the end of the world with no proof and demand we all do things their way.

Readers, this is your language too. Hold us advisors accountable.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.