Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar? PENNY ADAMS explores ‘rules’ and ‘rules’

Does seeing an incorrectly placed apostrophe make your language senses tingle? If so, like many others out there, you would be considered a prescriptivist. A prescriptivist can be defined as a person who “wants to tell you how you ought to speak and write”, while their counter parts, descriptivists, “want to tell how people actually do speak and write” (Huddleston & Pullum, 2002, p.5.). For a large proportion of the general public, these terms may seem alien, as most would probably recognise a prescriptivist by a different name; ‘Grammar Nazi’s’. On hearing the alternative name, used most favourably by the media, there may be some people who would disassociate themselves from the prescriptivist ideology. However, to some extent, all attitudes to language, whether popular or academic, hold ideologies which can be seen as prescriptivist (Cameron, 1995, p.4.).

Whilst it is recognised that everyone has certain prescriptivist attitudes to language, some take this authoritarian attitude to language more seriously than others. British journalist and author, Simon Heffer, notes that “[g]rammar is the foundation of good style. Its violation or disregard has the same effect on language as amputating limbs from a healthy being” (2014, p.160.). His passionate belief in following certain grammatical rules culminated in the writing of the book from which this quote is taken, Simply English. The book is an attempt to educate the general public on the ways to use English ‘correctly’. This popularist view that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English exists, raises questions about the reasons why people judge language in this way.

One theory which provides reason for people’s judgement of English is the fear of the decline of English. Aitchison states that “a wide web of worries, a cobweb of old ideas, ensnares people as they think about English” (1997, p.2.). By looking back at English, we can see that it did not always have a fixed grammar system. During the 18th century, there was much admiration for the fixed grammar system of Latin, which was a particularly prestigious language (Aitchison, 1997, p.4.). This period saw an overhaul in the grammar system of English, and an increase in the number of grammar books, such as Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which detailed how the English grammar system worked. Many believe it is this fixed grammar system that adds prestige to the English Language and if this system is not adhered to, English will fall into decline.

Attempting to adhere to this fixed grammar system does cause some issues. The English language is constantly evolving, and therefore some of the grammar rules that were in place 300 years ago are no longer used. If these grammar rules are constantly changing, then how can we be sure which rules should be adhered to? The Princeton Review faced this problem when they used Taylor Swift’s song ‘fifteen’ as evidence of bad grammar in their practice test papers. But, it was later pointed out that not only had they got the lyrics wrong, the correct lyrics are not grammatically incorrect (The Guardian, 2015).  The Princeton Review then attempted to rectify the situation by claiming “the accurate lyric is still grammatically wrong, on the grounds that ‘somebody’ cannot later be referred to as ‘them’”(The Guardian, 2015). What they seem to be forgetting is that ‘them’ has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for ages. The problem caused by these prescriptivist attitudes is that “invented language rules often get confused with genuine language rules” (Aitchison, 1997, p.5.). People confuse the genuine rules of the English Language, such as verb tenses and subject-verb-object structure with invented rules, such as not using double negatives. Problems occur when the importance of invented rules are over stated by prescriptivists.

Another potential reason for prescriptivist attitudes to language is that “although discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, gender or social class is not now publicly acceptable, it appears that discrimination on linguistic grounds is publicly acceptable” (Milroy & Milroy, 1999, p.2.). This use of prescriptivism as a form of discrimination is reflected in the Guardian article, as academics criticise celebrity/pop culture on the grounds that they will influence the ‘bad’ grammar habits of the general public.

To summarise, everyone, to some extent has a prescriptive attitude towards language. It is problematic to discuss the English Language completely prescriptively, but it is also just as problematic to discuss English completely descriptively, due to personal backgrounds and beliefs. Therefore, we can all recognise that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English does exist, but the more interesting question is why this juxtaposition exists.

PENNY ADAMS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester

References

Aitchison, J. (1997). The Language Web: The power and problems of words. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. The Politics of Language. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English; An A to Z of avoidable errors. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

Huddleston, R. & Pullum, G. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Lowth, R. (1799). A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes. Montana, United States: Kessinger Publishing.

Milroy, J. & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in Language: investigating Standard English. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Poole, S. (2015, March 26). Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly. The Guardian. 

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One thought on “Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar? PENNY ADAMS explores ‘rules’ and ‘rules’

  1. Shannan Kelly says:

    Hi Penny,

    This is a particularly interesting blog as I often find myself being irritated about the misplacement of an apostrophe. Prescriptivist, Lynne Truss (2006) argues that the ‘correct’ use of punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Thus, it must be important for interpretation and therefore vital for coherent English. For example the sentence may be in the ‘correct’ subject, verb, object structure but remain semantically ambiguous. To what extent do you think this is a valid argument?

    In addition to this, you comment that some people fear English is in decline. Do you feel this has perhaps been a driving force behind the recent adaptations to the education system, such as the addition of spelling, punctuation, and grammar tests in recent years?

    Your explanation of the complaint tradition and the constant evolution is interesting. The use of emojis are becoming more and more frequent via online networking sites, advertising and text messages due to developments in technology. Do you think that the use of punctuation marks for the creation of facial images is a misuse of these marks, or the positive development of communication across a media that is less personal than face to face conversation?

    Truss, L. (2006). Eats, shoots & leaves. New York: Gotham Books

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