Posts Tagged ‘Standard English’

Good English, correct English?

September 15, 2018

You would probably expect a retired English teacher to have strong views on what constitutes good or correct English, and what is permissible and what shouldn’t be. I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about this, partly provoked by what I’ve read recently about changes in French orthography. Whilst many and different attempts have been made to make our own language more gender-equal, languages like French which attribute, often apparently randomly, different genders to all nouns, have a rather more complex problem when they try to do this.

For instance, to use they as a singular pronoun in English, to avoid using he or she, and perhaps appearing to subsume the female in the male, jars for some, and for others seems perfectly acceptable, normal even. Usage evolves inevitably and although spoken English may lead, the written usually follows. With gender-specific nouns, some have started to use the (previously) masculine form for both male and female, thus, for instance, describing both male and female performers as actors, rather than using the separate form actresses for females only. I can’t, personally see a problem with such modifications of usage. But then, we don’t have any official body in charge of regulating the language, unlike the French.

At the moment, if you want to be equal across the genders in French, you have a masculine and feminine version of a word – let’s say étudiant and étudiante. And if you are attaching any adjective to that noun, it will also have a masculine and feminine form, and then there are different forms for singular and plural too. And the rules of the language currently say that the masculine form is sufficient when speaking or writing about a group that may actually comprise both genders. If you’re not happy about this, what do you do? I won’t go into further detail here, but there’s plenty of detail available out there on the web. All the possible suggestions I’ve seen or read about are either ugly or cumbersome or both. And then there’s the official body regulating the language to satisfy…

Which brings me back to right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Certain things rub me up the wrong way, like fingernails sliding down a blackboard. And yet, I have to acknowledge our language as a changing, evolving, dynamic system, and my studies of literature across the centuries have demonstrated this quite clearly to me many times over. Double negatives, which many blench at, were acceptable, even necessary, in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time.

During my time as a teacher, I tried to explain to students the notion of clarity as central to effective communication, and also the idea that spoken and written language are different, as are formal and informal usage, and what students needed most for success was an understanding of this, and the ability to function well in the appropriate register for whatever situation they found themselves in. Thus, how one spoke or texted in free or social time was one thing, and I could tut-tut quietly to myself if I liked; how one spoke in the classroom – a formal situation – was different, and I could and did have various specific expectations. Similarly, depending on who the audience was for your written English affected how you framed it; anything ad usum privatumcould be as you liked, although sloppy habits there might well end up carrying over into formal situations and causing problems; written English with an audience demanded care and adherence to the conventions of correct English. The same was true with regard to regional accents; there was nothing wrong with themper se, but in certain situations Standard English might be expected, and an inability to function in that register might disadvantage one.

All that is before we get started on the vexed topic of spelling, about which I was always much more rigid.


On linguistic imperialism

November 12, 2016

I was brought up speaking English; my variety is pretty much Standard English although my south Lincolnshire origins occasionally betray themselves in my pronunciation. I’ve always taught students that SE is an enabler, rather than a replacement for their own variety, wherever they come from: to only be able to operate in a dialect or with a regional accent can disadvantage someone in certain circumstances.

My studies of American literature have made me reasonably familiar with US usages, though not with the many accents of that huge country. I have been aware of Britain and the USA being both connected and divided by a common language, and rather horrified by the vague and characterless ‘mid-Atlantic English’ that has evolved or developed over the past few decades, particularly for the use of non-native speakers… I know very little about other varieties of English, such as those of Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

What has retained my attention over the years is what having a language shared with the USA has done to us in the UK. Initially, it was our language; the choice of English over German as the national language of the USA was a narrow thing, apparently. I’m aware that pronunciations and usages and some of the spellings in use on the other side of the Atlantic are actually closer to those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than the English we currently use in the UK. And obviously, as the power of the USA grew and that of ‘Great’ Britain faded with the progression of the twentieth century, US influence on our common language grew ever stronger. Increasingly books are published in a single US English edition, using US usage and spelling, for sale in all English-speaking countries and I have to get used to all those spellings I dislike and regard as incorrect for here… American TV shows, cheaply produced for a much larger audience, are easy fare for our TV companies looking to fill their schedules.

And, rather more alarmingly to me, the shared or almost-shared language means that every idea or theory, no matter how crackpot or bonkers, that someone in the US dreams up, is instantly and too easily accessible to us over here, whether economic, social, political or educational, whether it’s valid only for the US or more universally applicable – it can be in print, online or broadcast immediately and affect and influence us over here, often before we have time to engage our critical faculties.

This might seem blindingly obvious, and to an extent it is, but the point is that countries that use other languages have an inbuilt delay and a filter which is the need for translation, so ideas can and do take rather longer to percolate and infiltrate other countries, if they actually get there at all: they don’t potentially get the same kind of widespread and instant exposure that they can get here. An example: any teacher in the UK can list a great number of crazy theories and practices that have been adopted by or forced onto schools over the last couple of decades, often to the detriment of good education, and many of these ideas – such as performance management, for instance – originated in the corporate US, and have been dropped since. I have noticed from my reading of the French press that many of these half-baked and discredited ideas are now beginning to surface and be implemented in that country’s schools, and have met with the same scepticism and scorn from French teachers that they met quite a few years ago over here… It’s almost as if French, or German, or Polish or whatever is a shield from some of the craziness.

I’m not wanting to suggest that the USA has a monopoly on mad ideas, although I feel they do pretty well. But this linguistic imperialism is not something that seems to be that widely noticed or commented on, although its effects may be profound.

My A-Z of reading: G is for Grammar

November 2, 2016

I have a confession to make. As a secondary school student in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, I received very little formal teaching of English grammar; it was patchy and sketchy, and what grammar I really learnt came via my study of Latin and French. Yet I went on to have a successful career as an English teacher. My knowledge and understanding of English grammar was largely self-taught, and there are gaps, grey areas in my knowledge about which I was glad rarely to be asked.

There are all sorts of issues here. Should grammar be taught in a traditional way? Will it help with MFL (which is going down the pan very fast in the UK, it seems). Certainly it will be dull, boring and repetitive, and one might argue that most students will not need it anyway… and, of course, that’s an elitist argument in itself.

One might, instead, teach grammar as and when it’s needed, which was how I approached it during my teaching career. Formal teaching of some grammar and punctuation were needed if students were to progress beyond a certain minimum level in their own writing – and here’s the rub: how many people go on to need to write essays or other chunks of formal prose in later life? Surely, being able to speak correctly – to be able to function in Standard English as well as one’s home variety – is of more importance nowadays. And here we hit the thorny question of correct usage…

What is correct? Various newer usages grate on my eyes and ears, but as a student of our language as well as a teacher, I’m aware that language is a dynamic, developing and evolving construct; change is inevitable. Otherwise we would still all be speaking Latin…

When it came to trying to teach grammar effectively, I was hampered by the lack of decent resources for classroom use, and ended up constructing my own, cutting and pasting from a wide range of material. Textbook writers dumbed things down in an effort not to bore students to death, and didn’t provide the necessary practice drills that embed what is learnt. And then there is the matter of disagreement about the terminology to be used – the Year 6 SATs have produced some really wacky labelling, although I did find an intelligent 11-year-old to explain some of it to me…

And what about the great prescriptive vs descriptive debate: are we merely noting a range of usages, or are we in the business of telling people which to use? My criteria for students were always effective communication and intelligibility. There may well be a range of ways of being correct; it’s more useful to know what is actually wrong, in terms of impeding good communication.

I think – have thought for a long time – that the situation is a mess. Perhaps it has always been. Studying Latin to sixth form level embedded what I know and understand, but Latin isn’t English. I’ve always been interested (with a small ‘i’) in grammar, and have found my understanding very useful, but I’m well aware I’m not your general reader. What do you think?

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