The TEE view on the English language - Part 3
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 2 I looked at what is generally described as 'Standard English'. In part 3, I ask should we 'fix' the language, and what are the best grammar books?
OKAY, SO SHOULD WE FIX THE LANGUAGE FOR GOOD, LIKE THEY DO IN FRANCE?
As mentioned last week, there are people who would love to fix language rules into English, but around the world, such organisations that try to ‘fix’ their language do exist.
French is perhaps the best-known example, with the Académie française always trying to come up with French versions of words that have become known worldwide in most languages. For example, the internationally understood computer is ordinateur in French. Now France is extremely proud of its language, but proponents (people who actively support an idea) that insist on keeping its language as French as possible can get extremely irritated when many of their own citizens choose to refer to courrier électronique (or le Courriel) as un email or l’email. Indeed, the academy these days is mainly seen as symbolic and even not to be taken seriously; there’s little it can do to prevent ‘misusage’ or ‘Anglicisation’ of the language if its users prefer the non-French variety.
However, even if there are organisations that attempt to keep their languages as ‘pure’ as possible – and publish prescriptive dictionaries and grammar guides as a result – many do take a descriptive approach, but at the same time trying to make sure that there is some kind of standard to be followed. English is no exception; after all, learners of the language would still need some kind of guidelines.
The role of a regulator will become increasingly symbolic as language – regardless of whether it’s French, Italian or Polish - naturally develops, grows, and changes with fashion. But the more passionate, even fanatical individuals, often see their role as vital in maintaining the purity of the language and for it not to be infected by outside influences – even its own populations. “Le weekend!”
SO WHAT BOOKS COULD BE DESCRIBED AS 'OFFICIAL'?
If we are to look for something that carries some kind of… well, positive influence (if we should call it that) on the English language, then we can do no worse than to turn to the many well-known dictionaries and grammars that are often treated as being authoritative – that is, as ‘official’ books of the language.
Perhaps the closest example to an ‘official’ guide to the vocabulary is the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED for short). Work on compiling a comprehensive dictionary began in 1857, and ten volumes were completed in 1928. Since then a third edition has been in progress, although it has the almost impossible task of trying to keep up with those additional 14.7 words per day (if this is to be believed, Global Language Monitor). And according to The Guinness Book of Records, the OED is the world’s most comprehensive single-language dictionary.
As regards what could be defined as the definitive English grammar book, well, there are several candidates – creditable, debatable and controversial. There are detailed academic books such as A Grammar of Contemporary English, Longman’s Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (used as a resource for this book), and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which at two and a half kilogrammes makes it rather heavy to put in your bag, even though Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston have put together 1,860 pages of intensive analysis and reasoned argument that is a little heavy going for the non-native English language learner. So I have made reference to a few books in the book's bibliography that are popular and perhaps more reader-friendly among learners of English, but when compared to those weightier examples, could certainly not be considered as definitive. However, since these guides – like the one that this author has written – are aimed at learners, then they are sufficient for student needs.
ARE THERE ANY BOOKS TO AVOID?
There are also some other grammar books that are regarded as controversial but popular. For example, British grammarian Neville Martin Gwynne’s book, Gwynne’s Grammar, has sold very well; however, despite it receiving many positive reviews ("Gwynne’s Grammar is much more than an excellent introduction to the writing of good English. It is nothing less than a guide to the good life" [Mark Dooley, Daily Mail]), it has also been heavily criticised for being overly prescriptive and even wrong: ("Gwynne's Grammar" is a work of monumental silliness.” [Oliver Kamm, The Times.]) Nevertheless, despite the book’s obvious flaws (being overly prescriptive and wrong in places), more than fifty per cent of reviewers on Amazon’s site have given it five stars. What this suggests is that these are reviewers of the kind discussed earlier, in that they see the English language under threat and they need someone like Gwynne to give them a voice.
So what this all means is that 'us language teachers' have a rather difficult job to do, and I’m sure that ‘us language teachers’ will be picked on by those so-called guardians (or in my mind, prison warders) of the English language castle as an error unworthy of a teacher…
Yes, they will hate that too.
Because there is no official control of English, what would be considered ‘correct’, or even what would be regarded as ‘Standard English’. But what exactly is Standard English? Hang on, haven’t I already asked this question?
So, yes, there is a little more to the story, which I'll discuss in part 4.