Tuesday, March 23, 2021

On the arbitrariness of the usage rules that arise in public discussion

The set of usage rules that arise in public discussion in the United States (such as fewer vs. less, that vs. which, and the use of "literally") serves two purposes: sociologically, they mark those who master them as members of the educated class; and psychologically, those masters see themselves as having successfully put in the effort to achieve something worthwhile. If such rules have no foundation in linguistics or the history of English, that's actually the point: they have to be arbitrary and ungrounded if they are to produce the sociological and psychological effects of mastery, for only that ungrounded arbitrariness makes the overcoming that is a sign of mastery possible. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 23 March 2021)

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