Acceptable English is what people actually use
the singular they has recently become a topic of discussion in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002).In a comment on Rick's posting, "Larry" (whose views and writing style sound very similar to those of our "Anonymous" commenter - you are not by any chance the same person, are you?) wrote:
The Cambridge Grammar is a descriptive grammar; so it can't be relied on for presc[r]iptive issues.This raises an interesting question. Who or what can "be relied on for prescriptive issues" concerning the English language? Who has the right to prescribe what is grammatically correct English? For English we don't have an equivalent of the Académie française (or try this link in English), so no one has an official right to prescribe our language, despite the attempts of some, even the British parliament, to be prescriptive.
It seems to me that the only people who have the right to prescribe the form of English are the speakers of the language taken as a whole, exercising their democratic right in the way that they actually speak and write. That implies that the only prescriptive grammar for English is in fact a descriptive one. For if there is any way in which we ought to speak or write, it is the way that the language is actually spoken or written.
In other words, the only criterion of what is acceptable English is what people actually use.
This has some interesting implications for Bible translations.
Firstly, it suggests that Bibles are not acceptable if they use vocabulary and syntax which are not in regular use in modern English. Of course there are various styles of modern English; this criterion should not be used to reject wording which is used in high quality literary English but not colloquially. Nevertheless, constructions are used in many modern English versions (as has often been demonstrated on this blog) which have not been used in standard English at least since the 17th century. I would suggest that since these constructions are not now in regular use, they should not be used in Bible translations. Then there are some constructions which are used only in poetry in English; they should be used only in poetic passages in the Bible.
Secondly, my principle implies that any vocabulary and syntax which is actually in regular use in English, even constructions such as the singular "they" which have not been accepted by older prescriptive grammarians, should be considered acceptable in Bible translations. Here I would obviously exclude rude and offensive language, but that is a separate issue.
There should also be a principle here of what is acceptable to specific audiences. Bible translations need to be tailored to their audiences; despite some claims, there is no such thing as a translation which is ideal for all. So I would extend my original principle to suggest that what is acceptable language for a Bible translation is what is actually in use by the target audience for that translation.