Many of my posts are intended to clear up common mistakes that people make when they speak and write English. This probably raises a number of questions. First, who am I to say what’s right and what’s wrong? Second, how do I choose these “common mistakes” anyway? Third, if these mistakes are so common, don’t they represent English as it is written and spoken today?
First, I never write this stuff off the top of my head. Before writing a linguistic opinion, I consult a number of sources. One of my favorites is the Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, Usage, and Formatting. I like this source because it is so complete. Whenever I’m seeking information about a certain issue, I find that it’s almost always thoroughly discussed. I also look at the editorial guidelines of The Johns Hopkins University. If the university’s opinion isn’t the same as Gregg’s, the university wins. Finally, I do a sanity check to make sure that the opinion I’m giving seems to be mainstream and isn’t just some bee in my bonnet.
Second, I choose my topics from actual mistakes made by university employees. Perhaps some of you may think that some of the basic mistakes I write about couldn’t happen in a leading place of learning like Johns Hopkins. Please be assured that they do. I draw my material only from the spoken and written words of university employees.
The last question is probably the most interesting one. A perspective on this question leads to the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar aims to tell people what is correct, and descriptive grammar aims to provide information about how people actually use language. If you ask anyone who has studied linguistics, you will find that descriptive grammar is the topic of interest to a trained linguist. However, if you don’t conform to what the prescriptivists believe to be correct, your work will quickly become discredited. In other words, people will conclude that you’re an idiot and won’t listen to your opinion, won’t promote you, and may not even consider you for employment. That’s why it’s important to conform.