Notes on standard English and ‘bad grammar’

The particular English dialect that began to be adopted as standard more than half a millennium ago came from the UK, mostly the region encompassing London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

This part of the country was the hub of society, politics and education at the time, serving also as a bridge between northern and southern modes of expression. In Our Language, Simeon Potter writes that the East Midland dialect ‘had assumed an acknowledged ascendancy’.

According to David Crystal‘s The English Language, the clinching factor was William Caxton, who established his printing press in Westminster in 1476 and used the speech of the London area ‘as the basis for his translations and spelling’. By the end of the 15th century,

the distinction between ‘central’ and ‘provincial’ life was firmly established. It was reflected in the distinction between ‘standard’ and ‘regional’ speech — the former thought of as correct, proper, and educated, the latter as incorrect, careless, and inferior — which is still with us today.

From then on, standard English gradually secured its status as a prestige dialect in the English-speaking world. It was taught by educators guided by grammar books and dictionaries, to spread and sustain a (more or less) common set of norms in spelling, grammar and usage; the process continues today, overseen by editors and other authorities.

In ‘The Rise of Prescriptivism in English’ (PDF), Shadyah A. N. Cole says that before 1650, ‘tolerance with variation in language abounded’. Subsequently it was felt that the use of the language should be ‘regularized, standardized, codified, and unified’. Eventually:

As a result of the slowing of changes in pronunciation and other linguistic changes, the influence of the printing press, and spelling reformers, written English now had a form that varies only a little from what is current today.

Today, many people use standard English when circumstances demand, and default to other registers the rest of the time. Or rather: they use a form of standard English — it’s not as uniform and definitive as the name might suggest, and there is no little variation in the standards that obtain in different countries and contexts.

Still, there’s no mistaking the non-standard quality of lines like the following, though they are fully suited to the context in which they are naturally expressed:

Your Aunt Edith seen it happen and run out and drug him in.

‘Fine view,’ I said, ‘iffi’n only that barn warn’t there…’

There’s people got so much faith they can believe what ain’t…

Somebody said as how the town ought to clean Ogilby’s statue — become plumb pigeonfied last few years.

These are from Robert Arthur’s short story ‘Obstinate Uncle Otis’, which I read last week in Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery anthology. As you might guess, the story’s regional language, far from diminishing my reading experience, hugely enhanced it.

Yet a practice exists of censuring non-standard words, pronunciations, and grammatical forms. The internet abounds in sneers at variant usage. Even reputable news outlets publish articles that pour scorn on particular speech patterns; readers are tacitly or explicitly invited to join in, which they enthusiastically do.

So you’d be forgiven for supposing that standard English is inherently better: more logical, consistent, robust and so on. Not so: it’s riddled with illogic and inconsistency. Kory Stamper recently said that the language is ‘a lovely, powerful mess’, and this is as true of standard English as any other variety.

Here is a pertinent passage from one of my favourite books on writing and language, Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

. . . we ought to rethink the widely shared notion that every feature of standard English has some kind of self-evident, naturally determined “logic” that makes it intrinsically superior to its corresponding form in nonstandard English. In educated written English intended for general circulation, ain’t is socially “wrong.” But we ought not try to convince ourselves or anyone else that ain’t — along with most other errors of its kind — is wrong because it is inherently defective and is therefore evidence of an inherently defective mind. Such errors are “wrong” because of historically accidental reasons. Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take “bad” grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive.

In ‘Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory’ (PDF), Geoffrey Pullum writes:

Unjustified and perhaps unjustifiable, the rules of the prescriptive ideologues, dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar. . . .
It is a familiar pattern for people to reify an unjustifiable set of regulative rules that are supported mainly by the taste of the person making the proposal, to treat them as if they were the constitutive correctness conditions for some language that people do not speak but should, and to call that language English.

Standard English, though a minority dialect, enjoys an exalted position in the family of English dialects. But this is a matter of historical happenstance. Socially privileged it may be, linguistically superior it is not. Variation makes communication more interesting, and it can be savoured rather than disdained.


Language Hat has a good discussion of some of the issues raised in this post.

14 Responses to Notes on standard English and ‘bad grammar’

  1. johnwcowan says:

    Let me add to your links “Views of Standard English”, a page which links to a number of papers and talks, particularly Peter Trudgill’s excellent and highly accessible paper “Standard English: what it isn’t” (PDF).

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Well said. I’m currently posting on The Dictionary of Newfoundland English and the words therein are enchanting me even though some would put them down to the parlance of ignorant peasantry.

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks, John. I linked to that very helpful page in paragraph no. 8, and will gladly second your recommendation of Trudgill’s paper (which Barrie England also linked to in a comment here recently).

    WWW: I love regional vocabulary, and wrote about a few such words here (inc. guddle, dodderman, and bishybarnabee). I always enjoy your posts on language, and will catch up on your Dictionary of Newfoundland English posts presently.

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    “Standard English” and its various subsets (American, British, Australian) are very much an outgrowth of a linguistic social contract mirrored similarly by French, German, Italian, etc.) As such, it serves to objectify and perpetuate the “us, them” divisions in human society. I don’t think that right or wrong will ever hold sway in this argument. I do know that it ain’t fair, but then, life really isn’t fair; it just is. By the way, I agree with what you say, but in the end, not to sound pessimistic, it don’t matter much, nohow, ’cause prescriptivists have as much chance of having their minds changed as you can change the mind of a bag’a hammers.

  5. Stan says:

    Marc: Inevitably there is an element of exclusivity to the standardisation of a language. Not everyone has access to the education that instills it, and they can be at a disadvantage because of this.
    Not to sound optimistic, but I think prescriptivists change their minds quite often. As a younger person I was a lot more prescriptivist than I am now, before I came to recognise spurious rules and attitudes to usage for what they were.

  6. thepoormouth says:

    I love the rich diversity of English dialects (language and country) I give thnks we don’t have an equivalent fe L’Acdemie Francasie here

  7. “Socially privileged it may be, linguistically superior it is not. Variation makes communication more interesting, and it can be savoured rather than disdained”

    As someone who likes to think of himself as fairly articulate, but certainly not posh-sounding, I couldn’t agree more.

    FYI, Broadcasting House had a nice piece recently (25 March) in which (very northern sounding) presenter Paul Mason turned the tables on RP and tried to teach one of the Beeb’s veteran presenters to ‘talk northern’. Most amusing.

  8. lukas says:

    “Inevitably there is an element of exclusivity to the standardisation of a language. Not everyone has access to the education that instills it, and they can be at a disadvantage because of this.”

    There is an element of inclusivity too, as standardisation, when not pushed to unreasonable extents, facilitates communication, especially for non-native speakers.

  9. Stan says:

    Jams: So do I. An academy that sought to govern English usage wouldn’t stand a chance.

    speakthinkblog: I think language is sometimes just a scapegoat in this regard, a handy excuse for people to indulge in some harmless stereotyping or outright prejudice. Thank you for the link, but I don’t know which episode the discussion is in.

    lukas: True, and in that sense it’s a force for the good – at least potentially.

  10. […] spoke with NPR about the story of English. Stan Carey referenced Crystal’s book in his post on standard English and bad grammar, and assured us who to follow is grammatically fine. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Michael Rundell […]

  11. factualfantasy says:

    Reblogged this on Complexity Reduction and commented:
    People often talk of “broken English”, but how to define it?

  12. […] is a popular ideology that upholds standard English as a superior form of the language. This view comes from unacknowledged privilege, it is […]

  13. […] forms of language are appropriate in their own domains. Standard English is socially privileged, not linguistically superior to any other […]

  14. […] another, Curzan writes, what kind of English is being set up as ‘good’ or ‘correct’? Is it standard usage, formal usage, ‘educated’ usage, older usage, or socially acceptable usage? The answer is all […]

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