What is “correct” English?
How do we know what’s right or wrong in English? Languages such as French and Spanish have an official organisation that tells you what’s correct. But there’s nothing like that in English. So, what can we do?
There is, of course, Standard English. This is the sort of English you see in newspapers, formal letters and legal documents. It’s also the sort of English you learn at school or in course books.
However, Standard English isn’t official English. And incredibly, linguists classify Standard English as a dialect, so it’s on the same level as all other types of English such as Cockney English, Yorkshire English, South African English, Australian English… And according to linguists, there’s no such thing as Standard Spoken English.
As a result of this lack of structure, English is constantly changing. Every year, new words appear, and others disappear. Words change too. For example, for many years, the Latin word “agendum” was the accepted singular form and “agenda” was the plural form. However, these days, very few people use the Latin-sounding “agendum”, with “agenda” being the accepted singular form, and “agendas” the plural.
So, who decides what is or isn’t correct? Lexicographers (dictionary makers) choose words on the basis of usage – the way language is used. They do this by analysing thousands of texts. For example, the publishing house Collins has its Bank of English, which is a massive database of over 600 million words from newspapers, film scripts and transcripts of conversations. And they select terms from this Bank of English based on their frequency – how often they appear in text or speech.
Newspapers each have their own style guides with information on how they write certain things. For example, The Guardian puts dates like this, “21 July 2011”, with the day first, followed by the month (and no commas). However, the news agency Reuters writes them like this, “July 21, 2011” (with the month first, and a comma between the day and the year).
Other newspapers have different ways of doing it too. So, as you can see, there’s no one “correct” way – there’s a variety of ways and each one is valid. For language learners, there are guides, such as Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage. And most course books are written in Standard English, but there are always grey areas, such as the use of who and whom.
Of course, some people try to impose rules on the language. They may tell you that you can’t split an infinitive – you can’t put a word between “to” and the base verb form (e.g. “to quickly eat”). But try telling that to the makers of Star Trek, whose famous introduction goes, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Others will say you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. Well, Winston Churchill had something funny to say about that, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put,” which sounds ridiculous in English. [The more natural version would be: “This is the sort of nonsense I won’t put up with.”]
Or that you can’t use double negatives (two negative words in the same sentence). But what would Mick Jagger, whose song goes, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, have to say about that?
Next time someone tells you that something is “wrong”, tell them that it isn’t wrong, it’s just English!
Copyright © 2014 by Hot English Publishing
■ to classify vb = to divide into groups
■ a dialect n = a form of a language that’s spoken in a particular area
■ on the same level as exp = if A is “on the same level as” B, A is as important as B
■ Cockney adj = “Cockney” English is a working class accent from the East End of London
■ an agenda n = a list of the things that have to be discussed at a meeting
■ usage n = the way in which words are used and understood
■ a database n = a collection of data (information) in a computer. It can be used, adapted, added to, etc.
■ a script n = the “script” of a play, film or television programme is the written version of it
■ a transcript n = the “transcript” of a conversation is a written version of it
■ frequency n = the “frequency” of a word is the number of times it appears in texts
■ a style guide n = a guide with information on how to write or spell words
■ valid adj = if something is “valid”, it’s accepted as correct
■ a grey area n = if there’s a “grey area”, people can’t decide what the correct answer is
■ to split vb = to divide; to separate
■ an infinitive n = the “infinitive” of a verb is the basic form of it (do, be, take, etc.) often with “to” in front of it: to do, to be, to take, etc.
■ nonsense n = if you say that something is “nonsense”, you’re saying that it’s ridiculous or silly
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Copyright © 2014 by Hot English Publishing
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