commentary Tyson Seburn  

Correct English, no.

English is crazy? Grammar police? I look at both concepts with a similar disbelief. If you do too, this post may not be for you. You’re the choir, so to speak, but feel free to read along with a collective nod. That kind of agreement comes up again a little later in this post.

In one part of my life, I get emails or Facebook shares with funny language tidbits which, to anyone but teachers, indeed make English look stupid. See this famous vocabulary poem and this pronunciation poem as examples. Harmless, but not as funny as they might think.

Elsewhere, near these poetic forays into our language landscape comes a seedier claim: there is one correct unchanging version of our language. You don’t see that claim so clearly stated out loud, but it’s evident when the self-proclaimed language police quickly (selectively) point out broken rules. Doing so suggests a belief that shifts in usage occur at a distance, not within our lifetimes, as though everything that conflicts with ‘hard and fast’ language rules are temporary, bastardized, or both.

The truth of the matter is that somewhere above a basic foundational use distinguishing English from gibberish (though check out old English or middle English sometime), the rest of our neat rules are up for grabs. Change may be gradual (e.g. colonial power struggles, loan words) or quite abrupt ( media crossovers). Marek Kiczkowiak points out that had early definitions persisted, some common expressions would involve entirely different meanings now. I’ll be bizarre in the face of language purists by suggesting that correctness should be dependant on the agreement of a majority who use it in a particular context, not a stubborn minority who teach it or cherish a childhood rule. To borrow a phrase coined by Stephen Colbert (though mockingly), there is a wikiality to our language in these times of connectedness.

Yes, there are examples of carelessness that irk me too: would of instead of would have; your instead of you’re; and others like them. Rationally considered, however, a few start to persuade me of their value. For example, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the deletion of apostrophes in social media texts. Initially I cringed, but youre is the product of efficiency. Would it be so terrible if those pesky apostrophes simply became part of the past? Then the idiocy of the it’s/its rule would disappear too. That cant be bad… Then there’s that reductive because + noun. If it can be named word of the year, who am I to resist?

I’m not arguing we throw complete caution to the wind and abandon everything that helps learners be able to communicate, but as language teachers, our challenge comes in accepting that what we think we know is actually not so absolute. We must face the available evidence (check out Google’s nGram Viewer, various corpora, or just the world around us really) and recognise our expertise involves flexibility. Otherwise, we become irrelevant records of the past.

PS – Having said all this, I still want to maintain linguistic differences between Canada and the States. Read more here.

PPS – For your interest, if you haven’t seen this dandy 10-minute animation, check it out. It’s not comprehensive, but gives a useful glimpse.

PPPS – Believe it or not, Anna Loseva, this is a terribly failed attempt at #paragraphblogging. I’ll try again next time.

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18 thoughts on “Correct English, no.

  1. Ceri Jones

    singing from the choir here – lovely post and chimed in nicely with one of those fb exchanges

  2. Sue Annan

    FIne, for the most part, I agree. However, until the exam boards catch up, we need to teach what they consider acceptable, to our classes.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Maybe we need to stop allowing the standardised exams to rule? Or at least add the purpose of the exam classes to students as transparently as possible i.e. they are a means to an end, not absolutely true. Of course, they probably already know that.

      1. Joanna Malefaki

        Gr8t post! Luvd it 🙂

  3. Saskia Stille (@saskiastille)

    Love this perspective! For similar ideas, check out Makoni & Pennycook on disinventing language: and Blommaert on language and ‘superdiversity’:

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Cheers. Thanks for the references. I’ll check them out.

  4. Danika (Barker) Tipping

    Hi Tyson! This post dovetails perfectly with a conversion I’ve been having with my online ENG4U course. I’m going to link to to it if that’s okay with you. And thanks for sharing that video. I loved it!

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Hi Danika! Absolutely share as you want. 🙂 I’m glad to hear it may be relevant for you and your students.

  5. davedodgson

    ‘Language evolves’ is my favourite argument when I inevitably get into an American v. British English discussion with a colleague from the US (it has happened with most of the American teachers I have worked with). They argue that American English is better because it is ‘closer’ to the English spoken by migrants centuries ago. I retort that that shows a lack of evolution rather than evidence of superiority.

    Even during my short teaching career, I have noticed ‘internet’ become decapitalised and ‘online’ become unhyphenated. These things happen and loudly shouting about how it is ‘wrong’ doesn’t really help anyone.

    I’m still with you on having pet peeves though – the use of “…,no?” as a generic question tag is one (“this is correct grammar, no?”) and I had a native-speaker colleague who used to drive me nuts with her constant use of ‘homeworks’ as a plural noun (even worse when others started to use it as well…) I am sure I will reconcile myself to these things in the future though, no? :p

    1. davedodgson

      This video still makes me chuckle though

    2. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

      Thanks for this, Dave. 🙂 I use that ….,no? bit often enough myself. The one I have never been able to get used to (let alone work into my vernacular) is …., right?.

      1. davedodgson

        I think ‘…right?’ is a regional English tag – possibly in the same way that ‘…no?’ might be in North America. Right? No? I use ‘…right?’ a lot anyway. But you don’t, no? :p

        1. Tyson Seburn

          I know, right? <-- That's the most common use I hear.

    3. marekkiczkowiak

      Would be quite nice if we could use ‘no’ as a universal question tag, no? Would definitely make our students’ lives easier 🙂

  6. Joan

    Here’s another choir voice: Good post, Tyson! And I’m enjoying the discussion about it too.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Cheers, Joan. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  7. Russ

    God those bloody poems! Make them stop!

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