Si volet usus

Here is Sara Sánchez-Molina Santos’s first blogpost:

Grammatical rules change si volet usus (“if it be the will of custom”, according to Horace, in his Ars Poetica, c.  19 BC). This is what the Spanish Royal Academy says in the prologue to their usage guide El buen uso del español (“The good usage of Spanish”) which was released in 2013, coinciding with the 400 anniversary of the institution.

The goal of the academy since it was established in 1713 has been to dictate the grammatical norms that govern the Spanish language, following the prescriptivist tradition. But, surprisingly enough — at least it surprised me — it is claimed in this guide that all the rules are based on usage. Let me develop this point further. Of course, the authors of the book appeal to the normative tradition in Spanish. Our lives are governed by rules and also language is governed by them. However, they say that they have moved from a “monolithic concept” of the grammatical rules to a more flexible one. They are aware now of the mutable nature of language. Change is in the genetics of language, they say.

The book is intended as a tool to solve the possible grammatical or orthographical doubts that speakers may have and, as such, is a book of rules. But their aim is not to censor and prescribe, but to educate. The authors consequently take a more positive attitude to the grammatical norm they set down. Their perspective is one in which users choose to use the norm because it will help them to succeed in life. But do they succeed in thus distancing themselves from prescriptivism? Once you look at the contents of the books, you certainly find useful topics on orthography and punctuation, but also hot topics in prescriptivism such as laísmo, leísmo, loismo or dequeísmo (see below for what these words mean and why they are issuses of presciptivism). So, sticklers, don’t worry, the Academy is still with you.


Loísmo/Laísmo are features characteristic of the certain varieties of Spanish from Spain. They consist of the use of the object clitic pronouns lo (third person, masc, sing) and la (third person, fem, sing) in the place of the inidirect object clitic pronoun le.

Leísmo is a feature of certain varieties of Spanish in which the indirect object clitic pronoun is used in the place of the direct object pronouns lo/la. The Spanish academy accepts its use when referring to animate entities, but it condemns it when it refers to inanimate ones.

Dequeísmo is the use of the preposition de “of” in front of the complementizer que “that” when the preposition is not selected by any of the words in the sentence (e.g Me dijo de que estaba cansada instead of the accepted form Me dijo que estaba cansada “She said to me that she was tired”).

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