We know that is at least welcome to provide a reason (and preferably some reference) when providing an answer. I am glad that we are not Nazis about this, and a strict format is not required.

I found the following "reasons" supporting that an answer is good:

  1. dictionaries;
  2. grammar books / sites;
  3. Google n-gram;
  4. "I am a native English speaker"
  5. "People usually say..."
  6. and the best of all: "I am not a native English speaker and I make countless mistakes while answering (sometimes misunderstanding big time the question), but I have the nerve and the energy to answer and to defend my answer."

When there is a consensus about the answer, everything is fine. But what happens when there is no consensus?

Main question(s): Which is "the ultimate" reference for the English language? Is there any "ultimate" reference? We need this when deciding / judging which answers are best.

Which dictionaries are "official"? Which should be trusted more than others? As I see it, a dictionary is a book written by somebody, which can ultimately have mistakes (intentional or not). Does a new slang become proper English if it appears in only one dictionary? In any dictionary?

If statistical English (mainly 3 and 5 above) is the reference, then the Chinese and the Indians can change English completely every few years with no significant efforts. If we exclude the Chinese and the Indians, what about Australian English? Why is it excluded? Nobody (e.g. dictionaries) explains anything about it, like they explain about UK and US English.

Related, but not the same, is this question - which differentiates between the "ultimate reference" of current English and the "ultimate reference" for the "new" English.

  • Google Books Ngram Viewer uses books written by native speakers of English, I think. Most Indians or Chinese aren't that. Differences between English dialects are minuscule as far as grammar is concerned (e.g., in all of them you'll hear I like apples and in none I likes apples). There is, however, considerable difference in pronunciation and less so in vocabulary. A new slang term (not a slang) can definitely become Standard English, it's just that its use is largely restricted to informal style.
    – user3395
    Mar 29, 2019 at 23:35
  • 1
    @userr2684291 Ngram viewer isn't limited to works by native speakers - I've found plenty of examples by non-native speakers. And I've also seen issues with transcription errors where the automated character recognition had trouble with a bad scan. Google's Ngram viewer is useful for a very limited set of questions, and then still must be used carefully.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 30, 2019 at 2:58
  • While there might be errors in categorization and transcription, I don't think what you're saying is generally true. The corpora labeled American English and British English and English are not generally what you get by searching Google Books (apparently the corpus labeled English can contain books published in any country, but the first two are based on books published in the US and UK respectively – I've never noticed any significant qualitative difference, though). What's more problematic is a certain type of bias. I will say you have to be a little experienced to use it properly.
    – user3395
    Mar 30, 2019 at 13:47
  • 2
    @userr2684291 There are many books written in English and published in the US or Britain that were not written by native speakers. I only have anecdotal evidence of the prevalence of typical mistakes skewing the Ngrams, and it is most certainly dependent on what words you’re trying to compare. There was a discussion where almost all the samples for one phrase came from Spaniards based on looking at the author’s name and credentials. I’ll see if I can dig it up when I have time. We just have to understand its limitations when looking at the graphs.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 3, 2019 at 15:56
  • Good question. I don't think there is an ultimate reference - every native speaker has their own idiosyncrasies, so you have to decide who is a good model and who is not, what is a slip and what is brilliantly innovative, etc. Since there is no objective basis for doing that, you can't avoid bringing your own tastes into it, and there is lots of scope for confirmation bias... but then, part of the beauty of language is that you can't control it; it just grows as it will - and speakers of languages that have governing bodies - like the Académie Française - tend to ignore their diktats anyway.
    – user96060
    Jun 28, 2019 at 15:55

1 Answer 1


All of the things you point to have value, yet none of them are infallible.

  • Grammar books and grammar websites. These are especially good for learning codified rules about English, but they don't typically delve into emerging words or slang.

  • Google Ngrams. These supply usage data for very short phrases (no more than five words) in written works, but they don't tell you much about the context, and they don't say much about how people actually talk while conversing over coffee, tea, or beer.

  • "I am a native English speaker" and "People usually say..." There is nothing wrong with someone relying on the fact that they have been fluent in a language for decades. However, just because I've never heard a phrase doesn't mean nobody ever uses it.

  • Dictionaries. All of them have a target audience; all of them have their own strengths and limitations. When researching an answer, I rarely check only one. (My answer may cite only one, but I usually check at least three or four.) It's best to learn about which dictionaries work best for certain kinds of questions.

Ideally, all of these tools can be used together in a synergistic way. If your intuition and experience align with the what the dictionaries say and the Ngrams reflect, then you can probably do a nice job of supporting your position. (If not, that's okay, too; however, in such cases, it's often best to soften your answer and not be so dogmatic about your opinion.)

The key is to know the limitations of the tools we use. My spellchecker keeps putting a red line beneath the word Ngrams, but that doesn't mean I'm spelling it incorrectly. Most dictionaries will support the fact that boner can be a synonym for blunder, and that intercourse can a synonym for conversation, but that doesn't mean it would be good to tell our learners that "Let's have intercourse about my boner" is a good way to say "Let's talk about my mistake."

That all said, if there was a single authoritative reference that could definitively answer any and all questions about English, don't you think you would have seen it mentioned by now?

As for this question:

When there is a consensus about the answer, everything is fine. But what happens when there is no consensus?

Perhaps in such cases it's best to simply acknowledge that not every question has a single correct answer that everyone will agree upon. If you find that lack of consensus or resolution disconcerting, just remember this: Quite often, those are the most interesting questions.

  • 3
    I just want to add that if there were a singular ultimate reference that everyone could refer to that is correct and clear in all situations, we wouldn’t need ELL.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 29, 2019 at 16:04
  • No, we'd still need it, because people do have to learn languages, no matter what. But since English varies greatly worldwide, there can be no ultimate standard. After all, every native speaker manufactures their own grammar in their first two or three years and after that, just tries to pretend they're keeping up with everybody else. That's the Ultimate Authority. May 7, 2019 at 21:29
  • @JohnLawler I think we agree. It is unlikely that someone will ever be able to go to a single resource, whether it is a book, a website, an application with artificial intelligence, or a person, and get the one and only correct answer to their question about English. Well, at least until English as a language dies out and we start using something else.
    – ColleenV
    Jun 25, 2019 at 15:59
  • Even when there is no consensus there may still be a right answer. In the same way a consensus on a final point does not establish the preceding reason as error-free. Ngrams are simply encodings of what is printed rather than rules regarding what should be. Dec 3, 2019 at 2:39

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