How to Spell

I’ve been interested in languages for a few years (despite only being able to speak one with any fluency) and consider myself a bit of an amateur linguist. It’s long been a standing question as to how to determine ‘correct’ English. Linguists divide grammar into two competing factions: descriptive (30% people speak like this, 70% people speak like that) and prescriptive (thou shalt speak in this way, as others have since time immemorial). It’s not hard to see that this concept could be - and probably has been - extended to spelling.

I’ve found it hard to have sympathy with the prescriptive camp. Of course there is a place for clear writing, and I strongly believe that well-studied punctuation, spelling, and grammar makes communication clearer at best, and even a good impression at worst. Nevertheless, prescriptive diktat is everywhere, and often with little justification. As an example, despite being British, I’m a big fan of American English - which is often ridiculed and misunderstood by many British people.

As such, I’m going to propose Ferrier’s Rule of Common Language Usage, #1:

Any describable linguistic construction used by a majority of the population should be prescribed where relevant.

(by ‘where relevant’, I’m talking about language education in schools, etc.)

I think this would greatly help language develop - it ain’t static; get over it - and make language richer and more interesting. What do you think?


Andrew, I saw your reference (sic) to "referer" spelling in Wikipedia just now. I'm surprised you didn't mention it here. :-) As it happens I'm playing around with doing stuff with Referer URLs - for Hackday4. See
@Michael, of course. I could weasel out of this and claim I was using the word 'population' to describe the relevant audience, but I won't :) Thanks, that's a good point.
I think there is certainly a need for some prescription of language constructions, particularly - as you rightly note - during educational processes. However, it is important to recognise the role that contextual differences play in language development. For example, the definition of "a majority of the population" can take on entirely different meanings, depending on the context. As a former teacher of science, I would teach my science students to write laboratory reports in a certain way, according to the conventions used in the scientific world. In this case, "the population" would refer not to society as a whole, but to the part of society that engages in scientific investigations. Therefore, as opposed to the concept of "correct" English, as a society we would seek to extend understanding of "appropriate" forms of communication, recognising that what is appropriate in one set of circumstances may not be appropriate elsewhere.
No, I didn't, thanks for the link. Her idea sounds appealing-ish, but I don't think it'll ever catch on: language rarely changes that dramatically just by diktat. And I find Chinese interesting too: since I don't stand a chance of acquiring the patience required to learn it, though, I'll have to stick to the one language I do know.
Did you by any chance see the BBC spelling story? I'd certainly prefer the American spelling changes to the English changes being suggested! Still, I find the relationship between written Chinese and the Chinese languages much more interesting than all this English/American/spelling stuff :)