Some Misunderstandings and an Attempt at Enlightenment

This is a response to a number of posts that have arisen in a Facebook group. I apologize for repeating anything I may have said before, but I have attempted to bring together in one place, if somewhat disjointedly, a number of points that seem to me to be related.

There is no inconsistency between describing and accepting English in all its variety and teaching children Standard English. I’ve quoted elsewhere this extract from David Crystal’s blog, but I’ll repeat it here for those who may have missed it:

It is the role of schools to prepare children for the linguistic demands that society places upon them. This means being competent in Standard English as well as in the nonstandard varieties that form a part of their lives and which they will frequently encounter outside their home environment in modern English literature, in interactions with people from other parts of the English-speaking world, and especially on the internet. They have to know when to spell and punctuate according to educated norms, and when it is permissible not to do so.

An acceptance of the many varieties of English is not at all the same thing as saying ‘anything goes’. Linguists simply do not say that. In fact, they say the opposite. David Crystal again, same source:

The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that ‘anything does not go’.

Or Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics and Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, from his paper on ‘Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory’:

It is a complete caricature of linguists’ attitudes to usage that they think anything goes and regard everything that occurs as grammatical. They don’t. Quite to the contrary, they insist that there are constitutive correctness conditions for natural languages, conditions that define the difference between right (grammatical) and wrong (ungrammatical) for individual languages. Grammaticality is not to be confused with choice of formal style, though: informal style is grammatical too.

Commentators since Cicero have been complaining about what they have perceived as language decline. They were all wrong. Had they been right, we would not have had any languages at all by now. Most people, most of the time, it is true, haven’t been able to read or write at all and many do not do so very well even now, but thanks to technology, people are using non-spoken language more extensively than ever before. They’re using it, playing with it, experimenting with it, as the literate always have.  As for the language of texting, I’m afraid I have ask its opponents to refer yet again to David Crystal. Get hold, if you can, of a copy of his book ‘Txtng: The Gr8 Db8’. Short of that, read his 2008 article in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper here: He concludes:

Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

On the matter of rules, it is most important to distinguish between rules about which there can be little or no debate, for they are matters of fact, and rules about which there is much debate, because they are matters of opinion. Failure to understand the distinction is at the heart of much misunderstanding. To take an extreme example, it is a matter of fact that the following sentence is ungrammatical: Sea the on ship sailing, aircrafts but skyen flewed. It’s wrong, it’s incorrect, it’s bad English. It is not a matter of opinion to say so. Nor is it a matter of opinion to say that Ships sail on the sea and aircraft fly in the air is correct English. By contrast, it is a matter of opinion, and not of fact, whether we should say To whom did you give it? rather than Who did you give it to?


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