You are not the drum major
Responding, I think, to the non- post, fellow editor @ceshove tweeted, “convicting for the rule-follower in me, but i still think standards have a place. standards + use of brain = gold”
To which @StanCarey replied, “Certainly standards have a place—problem is that ppl try to impose these conventions universally for no good reason.”
Let’s think a little about standards. Standards are most familiarly what Those People* brandish to defend personal preferences. That’s when you hear the keening about barbarians at the gate. Let go of who/whom or everyone/they, and the wall is breached and Constantinople falls to the Turks.
But there are not universal standards. English does have a grammar, the rules and principles of which linguists struggle to describe exhaustively, That grammar is not prescriptive. It just explains how you sound strange or make no sense if you violate those rules. Beyond that, there’s a lot of scope.
Standards, when Those People shout about them, are usually the conventions of standard written English (which Those People sometimes mistakenly try to apply to spoken English). Keep this in mind: Those conventions change over time, which is why we may admire Dryden and Macaulay but no longer write like them. And those conventions are local.
By local, I mean the conventions that one finds in the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. Useful as they are for accomplishing consistency in small matters for a publication, they are not meant to be universalized. (This is the thing copy editors tend to have trouble with.) If you do something the other way, it is still going to be English and understandable.
If I tell you that whom is on the way out, or that English speakers have always confused lie/lay and it’s not something to get exercised about, I am merely describing facts to you so that you can form your own judgments. I am not telling you to abandon the standards. Look at this blog: It still uses whom and distinguishes between lie and lay, because I choose to. And the singular their crops up from time to time, because I choose to allow that, too.
A Facebook acquaintance commented the other day that she has had it: “There are just too many variations in this world, American Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style.....” (She subsequently corrected “American Press” to “Associated Press.”) She’s going to follow her own style, and I applaud her. If she is not under discipline from some publication or publishing house to follow a particular set of conventions, and she is consistent in her own choices, there’s no reason she shouldn’t set her own style.
Hers would be a very local set of standards, but let me remind you again that all standards are local, and transient. Observing them within their bounds makes sense; imposing them beyond those bounds does not.
English is not a parade, with everyone in ranks marching in step. It’s more of a cavalcade—a pretty disorderly one at that—or Chaucer’s ragtag crowd of pilgrims ambling toward Canterbury. And even if it were a parade, you would not be the drum major.
*General Lee—I think it was Shelby Foote explained this on Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary—did not refer to the opposing forces as Union or Federal troops. He called them “those people.” It may be that he wanted to skirt the knowledge that he was fighting officers he once served honorably alongside. Or it may be that he did not want to dignify them with a status. For both those reasons, “Those People” seems an apt way to refer to the tribe of peevers.