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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


The Notion of Correctness

Whether a piece of language is "right" or "wrong" is frequently a misleading idea. In practice, language may better be described as "appropriate" or "acceptable" to a given register or context.

What is acceptable when spoken by a teenager may not be acceptable when written in a report by an adult. Context is all.

The so-called "rules" of English are usually in fact pieces of advice laid down by grammarians who refer back to classical models, even though the structure of Latin and Greek are very different from English. They are sometimes referred to as "nineteenth century neo-classical grammarians."

Some of these "rules" may be good advice for a speaker looking for a model of clarity, and reassuring, but others are now widely seen as artificial constraints on a living language.

Old rules such as "don't finish a sentence with a preposition", "don't start a sentence with 'and'" and "don't split an infinitive" are examples of rules which are still held to by some language users but deliberately flouted by others.

Note that grammatical rules are generally more advisory than the rules governing the meaning of words. Although words do change their meaning, have ambiguity and frequently have several meanings at once, a dictionary definition is, by and large, an agreed meaning of a word. Lists of commonly confused words can be helpful in distinguishing between "whet" and "wet" or "complement" and "compliment" for example. Visit one such list here at Awesome Grammar.

There are two main principles at work creating grammatical rules:
Prescriptive describes the attitude that there are rules and you should obey them.
Descriptive describes the attitude of many modern linguists which is that what is said by natural speakers of the language is normal and that this "real" language should be described by students of linguistics to create a model of language.
In other words prescriptive grammarians impose their views based on prescribed or laid down rules while descriptive grammarians describe the language first then offer this as a framework within which users can work.

Underpinning all this are basic rules which are generally agreed, fundamental rules which make a language unique, yet these are so embedded that the rules are rarely raised as issues by speakers. See the theory of universal grammar as proposed by Noam Chomsky.

In a recent radio phone-in about the notion of correctness almost every speaker made value judgments about modern English being "sloppy" or "bad" and one asked where he should "draw the line" between good and bad language.

In my view there is no line to be drawn: what is acceptable here and now with this speaker and this audience may be unacceptable with different times, speakers, audience, medium, situation, style and message. These differences usually follow the process of change and are therefore flexible hard to define - though this doesn't stop users from trying to define them precisely. Maybe this is why spelling and apostrophes are a particular focus for language pedants - because both are far more easily defined than grammar or style and easier to get to grips with than the differences between speech and writing.

However let's remember that even though most of our English spelling rules were laid down in Dr Johnston's famous dictionary in 1755 and were accepted as the guidelines for educated English society, there have been many changes since then. Some have been accepted in Webster's American dictionary as progress towards simplification (color, flavor etc) and some rationalisation has also crept into English dictionaries, with variants recognised and occasional change made (judgment gradually replacing judgement, the "ae" as in mediaeval being replaced to form medieval, archeology and encyclopedia following the same pattern.
The suffix -ise and -ize still battle it out and while both remain acceptable, different newspaper style guides and word processor dictionaries may enforce one or the other. There are surprisingly few absolutes in the English language.

Nevertheless sponsored sources invite you to:

Note the grammar mistakes corrections not to make while you write your English language essay:

Does Your English Let You Down?



Register & Appropriateness