In the course of a discussion on the RNA's private mailing list I found myself rather carried away into rant mode on one of my pet subjects - the rules of English and why there are none. Always keen on the principles of recycling, I thought that I would share my thoughts here too.
I feel quite strongly that there are no universal "rules" of English. Many of the most-often quoted "rules" (not splitting infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions) have been retrofitted to the language by the likes of Dryden in an attempt to make English fit their own ideas of how a language should work (by which is meant "just like classical Latin). The rules are not inherent in the language itself, which, after all, evolved into its modern form(s) through constant use by people who did not stop to think about underlying structure as well as by grammarians.
That is not to say that there is no such thing as good and bad writing, nor does it mean that writers should not learn the language as well as they possibly can, but what we need to learn is what works. And by "works" I mean what most effectively communicates what we want to say to our intended audience. Clumsy turns of phrase, misplaced commas and misuse of the subjunctive aren't "wrong" but they can be distracting. Distraction is the enemy. As soon as readers start noticing our use of English we have lost them.
Publishers' house styles reflect publishers' experiences of what works and what doesn't for their readers. I suspect that the house rules for HMB are not exactly the same as those for the Guardian, because they have different audiences. Each has its set of loyal readers who become used to their particular way of doing things, and who may well be distracted by a different approach.
But house styles tend to focus on the superficial details, where a concise set of guidelines can be drawn up (the Guardian stylebook is 190 pages long, Hart's Rules come in under 90 pages if you ignore the guidance on Foreign languages). No such guide is ever going to be able to set out everything there is to say about effective writing. For that we have to inhabit the language totally. This is where an author's unique voice comes from - our individual interaction with every element of the language that we use. It gives us rhythm and pace, mood and tone. Georgette Heyer evokes sadness one way, Ian Fleming does it another way. Neither is more right, nor is either closer or further away from "proper" English. It would be phenomenally difficult to explain why each writer's passage conjures up that particular emotion - it must be in the words because that is all there is, but which words?
That is why I think that the pursuit of "correct" English is a shibolleth. It doesn't - and can't - get anywhere near what really matters to me as a reader and as a writer.
I will continue to fight battles on behalf of the subjunctive, and to preserve the distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested", not because it is morally right to do so, but because I believe that every time such a battle is lost, the language loses a little bit of its power and subtlety. In the end I don't want an English that is considered as "correct" as possible by some sort of Academy, but one that is felt to be as rich as possible by those who use it every day.