Four Basic Points

1. The grammar of a language is the way its speakers put together units of meaning to form words and the way they put together words to form sentences. It contrasts with style, which is the way in which users of the language choose constructions from the grammatical repertoire and words from the lexical repertoire for their various communicative purposes. Grammar is a matter of fact. Style is a matter of opinion.

2. There is not just one English. There are many varieties and sub-varieties, and they vary according to geographical location and social class. These varieties have internally consistent grammars, and all thus have equal linguistic validity. Within any one variety, including Standard English, there are many styles, such as formal and informal, elegant and inelegant, effective and ineffective, friendly and distant, deferential and egalitarian, male and female.

3. Standard English, although a minority spoken dialect, is extremely important. It is the variety used in most published writing and it is readily understood by disparate geographical and social communities. There is widespread agreement on what constitutes it. The points which are hotly disputed are mostly questions of style such as the informal who set against the formal‘whom.

4. The terms ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are unhelpful in discussing language, except in speaking of infants and foreign learners. Language is best judged on its effectiveness. To say that a particular usage is incorrect is inadequately descriptive and insufficiently damning.

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13 Comments

Filed under English Language, Language

13 responses to “Four Basic Points

  1. Fivefold Amen (modulo our standing disagreement on whether Standard English incorporates the standard forms of all countries, as I believe it does).

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  2. Agreed. Nicely put. Have you covered double is / copula, which seems to go against the grammar of standard English but is becoming widespread and acceptable? Pres Obama is documented as using it frequently in, for example, phrases like “The problem is is that…” It is becoming more common in writing, too, I believe. Will it become standard?

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  3. Might be worth investigating some time. The COCA has 330 records for ‘is is that’, but nearly all are from spoken sources.

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  4. A good summary: it is especially good to have such condensed expressions of the status of Standard English. But of course I have quibbles…

    First, I think it is usual to say that the standard Englishes spoken in various countries are distinct varieties. I don’t know about the claim that they are distinct dialects; as you say, the differences are not great, certainly compared to the difference between, say, the Lancashire and Sussex dialects.

    Second, incorrectness in language is not a marginal phenomenon: in conversation, people change what they want to say midway and make grammatical errors, say, or trip over the phonology (e.g., in a tongue twister); in writing, people get tangled up in the complexity of what they wanted to say. It is true that there are several dialects which accepts sentences that would be regarded as showing number disagreement in any standard English, or a tense error; still these will be exhibited by native English speakers who have never spoken any of these dialects – these are errors.

    Something weaker I think is true: native speakers of English do fully master at least one dialect of English, with exceptions only being seen in cases of cognitive impairment or extraordinarily unusual circumstances of first-language acquisition. The errors we see in speaking and writing occur because language production is fallible, not because the language has not been grasped.

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    • Thank you.

      There is certainly some variation in the grammar and vocabulary of the Standard English of the major English language communities, and for that reason it is helpful to speak of Indian English, Australian English and so on. Linguists tend to use the terms ‘dialect’ and ‘variety’ indiscriminately, the latter perhaps allowing for a little more wriggle room.

      In speech we do tend to change our minds about the construction we’re using part way through a sentence. This is a feature which David Crystal has called a ‘blend’. He gave the example of Paul McCartney singing of ‘the world in which we live in’. As I am sure you will know, the difference between our knowledge of a language and the way we produce it is well documented. For de Saussure it was the difference between ‘langue’ and ‘parole’. For Chomsky it was competence and performance. But to castigate what we all do when we speak as an error seems to me an inadequate description. It’s not as if the written language is a state to which the spoken language should aspire. Speech came first.

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      • Bjoern

        Hello,

        I have to say: I am so glad that I am definitely not the only one who knows the phenonemon of “tripping over” grammar when changing the sentence midway.

        Just recently, I’ve spoken to a French teacher and she agreed with me on the issue of sentence structures in both English and French. Due to the two languages’ placing of the verb quite early in the sentence, you’ll have a hard time still getting it grammatically right should you change your sentence somewhere in the middle.

        You should face much less of a challenge when speaking German, for example. I live in a bilingual household (DE-US) and I am used to changing sentences halfway through – when speaking English, that just means I’ll have to “rewind and rephrase”.

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  5. Well said.

    I’m not sure Crystal is right on Live and Let Die. Wikipedia:

    When asked about the lyrics, McCartney responded that he doesn’t remember for sure himself, but that he thinks it is “in which we’re living”.

    Perhaps a fun example would be Austin Powers’s attempt to appear educated and smooth:

    “Allow myself to introduce …[awkward silence, realizing he’s screwed up]… myself.”

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  6. Stuart

    A great summary, thank you so much. The only thing I struggled with was “To say that a particular usage is incorrect is inadequately descriptive and insufficiently damning” – I understand the “inadequately descriptive” but am confused by the “insufficiently damning”. Is there some way it might be rephrased for the inadequately literate and insufficiently intelligent?

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    • Thank you.

      I mean that it is more important to be effective in a particular social and linguistic context than to conform to someone’s arbitrary idea of how the language should be used. To be accused of producing a perceived incorrect grammatical construction is rather less hurtful, I’d have thought, than to be castigated as an ineffective communicator.

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