The TEE view on the English language - Part 2
This is a much-revised and rewritten text that was originally published in the website's companion book, Typical Errors in English, and may be used for a possible second edition of the book.
In part 1 I looked at the three different approaches on teaching English, and discussed a brief background on the English language. In part 2. I ask...
OKAY, SO WHAT IS STANDARD ENGLISH?
Let's begin with a kind of rough guide on what this language is (thanks to the Open University for reminding me of this information):
Standard English is the language that agrees on what is regarded as normal usage, that is, those norms that have been widely accepted in dictionaries and grammar books. These are the ‘rules’ that are in place, particularly for written purposes, for education, government and science.
Standard English is the result of a language used by the most powerful or influential social or ethnic group, from which came established spelling for written words, using the language for all kinds of purposes including elaborating and extending its vocabulary and grammatical structures, and then making it the standard by having texts using it, particularly when it comes to documentation (and not using alternative language varieties, including local dialects). If users want or choose to develop a source of loyalty to it, then this is the form that is encouraged.
But Standard English was not a result of policy or planning. It evolved, particularly after the introduction of the printing press to England by William Caxton in the 15th century. When printing the first texts, Caxton had to select a variety of English suitable for use, so he set into motion the first stage of standardising the language by choosing the variants of the East Midlands dialect.
So even though this form was used only in one part of the country, it would become the national norm: printing produced identical material and a standard that would be read by people everywhere. Standard English has developed from this form. It was the shift from Middle English to the Modern English that has evolved into what we’re using today.
In fact, over the years, English has developed further as a result of social and economic changes and is continuing to do so. However, there are many who argue that there should be a fixed standard of the language. Some might even describe the fixing of the language as an ongoing process or, to its more extreme, an ideological struggle.
I’d better explain that last point.
In recent years, mainly thanks to the internet, texting and the wonderfully wide and varied world of social media, there have been an increasing number of voices, particularly in the media world, who – in the face of what they see as a threat to the language they so love and cherish – firmly believe there should be fixed rules in the use of vocabulary and grammar. They would love some kind of authority that regulates the language so we don’t get, for example, the word ‘bad’ – as popularised by the song by Michael Jackson – also meaning the opposite. They would love to see a form of 'Language Police' arrest someone for using ‘because’ as a preposition in an ironic or sarcastic context, and then follow it directly with a noun because internet. Users of double negatives should receive prison sentences. They’d adore an English-speaking world where they’d be able to seriously admonish (a nice formal, sensible word meaning to reprimand someone firmly, or to tell them in a not very happy way as to why they’ve done something wrong) individuals for ending sentences with prepositions, adding split infinitives, beginning sentences with and, using have got in written texts, and so on. These very serious individuals who believe in fixed rules of English are known as prescriptivists.
In recent years, British writer Nevile Gwynne, journalists John Humphys and Simon Heffer, and politicians Michael Gove and Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg have been making public their views on how the language should be used. Linguists argue that their choices are purely their preferences.
If you are one of those students who has looked at this website in detail and even a copy of the book that this site is based on, you’ll have noticed that I have ‘broken’ many of these rules. But I haven’t. Really.
Much of what’s been written here is actually fine in Standard English. A lot of the examples that those individuals are claiming are wrong – actually, let’s not call them prescriptivists, but pedants – have their roots based in Greek and Latin grammar (which is not English) or on 18th and 19th century rulebooks that often reflected the opinion of the book’s author rather than on any solid basis or evidence of usage. And many of these books proved to be quite popular at the time and sold well. You can even install apps to point out your 'errors'. Again, many of these are formal writing preferences and are not necessarily mistakes. Grammarly, for example, says that the use of 'has' in the line If you are one of those students who has looked at this website in detail should be 'have', presumably because of 'you' as in 'you have', but in the second person and plural. But I'm talking about 'one of those students' in the third person, as in 'he', 'she' or 'it' rather than 'I', 'you', 'we' or 'they'. It's a stylistic choice, but it's not incorrect.
Maybe there are alternative and better ways of getting my message across, but as I’ve chosen to write in a relatively relaxed and informal style – much of it in the same way as many native speakers would actually say in conversation – then for me, how I express myself here isn’t a problem; as long as it follows what is generally accepted to be Standard English. Linguists such as David Crystal, Jeffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker have absolutely no problem with it. Plus it’s my voice I want to be heard.
Anyway, it’s fair to say that most native speakers use the language in a more-or-less correct way, in that they use it to express themselves in a way that listeners would understand, even if it isn’t always Standard English. But those who believe they are using English correctly often don’t know exactly why or what certain structures are and how they work:
‘Could you explain what the second conditional is?’
‘If I knew that, I would tell you.’
In Part 3: Should we 'fix' the language, and what are the best grammar books?