Tag Archives: standard english

The Negative Canon: Double Negatives – An Absolute No-No?

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.

That’s from Chaucer’s description of the Sergeant of Law in the ‘Canterbury Tales’. See anything wrong with it? Perhaps you will in translation: ‘There wasn’t nowhere a man so busy’ (nas was the negative of was in Middle English). Taking the mathematical approach favoured by the critics of double negation, it would mean: ‘There was everywhere a man just as busy’. The following line shows clearly that that is not the intended meaning. Similarly, he writes of the Prioress:

Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hir brist

The mathematical approach would tell us that she made sure that a drop DID fall on her breast, because in translation it reads ‘She knew how to take a little piece of food, and see to it that no drop didn’t fall on her breast.’ We know from the rest of the description of the Prioress that it cannot possibly bear that meaning.

Just as no one can seriously believe that the mathematical readings are what Chaucer intended, so no one can seriously believe that Shakespeare intended us to understand that in ‘Twelfth Night’ the cross-dressing Viola means that a woman WOULD be mistress of her heart when she says:

I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth.
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall be mistress of it, save I alone.

Before English became fully standardised an increasing number of negatives strengthened the force of the negation. There was no question of one negative cancelling another, and that is still the case in nonstandard dialects, as Mick Jagger showed us when he sang that he couldn’t get no satisfaction. As Peter Trudgill writes in his paper ‘Standard English: What It Isn’t’:

Standard English lacks multiple negation, so that no choice is available between I don’t want none, which is not possible, and I don’t want any. Most nonstandard dialects of English around the world permit multiple negation.

Those who regard double negatives as illogical should try telling that to the French. In French, it is single negation that is nonstandard. The standard requires the negative ne to be followed after the verb by the negative pas, or by other negatives such as rien (nothing) or nul (not any, none).

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) repeats Otto Jespersen’s point that negation in English is often marked, at least in speech, by the unstressed –n’t (and was marked in the past by the particle ne). This may often be felt inadequate, and ‘hence, there has long been a tendency to strengthen the negative idea by adding more negative elements to the sentence.’ In tracing the history of objections to double negation, MWDEU gives due credit to Bishop Lowth, who stated firmly in ‘A Short Introduction to English Grammar’:

Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative . . .

As examples of what Lowth calls ‘a relique of the ancient style, abounding with negatives; which is now grown wholly obsolete’ he, too, quotes from Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Lowth’s proscription was reinforced by later grammarians, but, according to MWDEU, double negation was disappearing from literature anyway by the time Lowth was writing. MWDEU’s further comment is worth quoting in full:

What was happening was that their sphere of use was contracting; they were still available but were restricted to familiar use – conversation and letters. And, since old forms persist the longest among the least educated, the double negative became generally associated with the speech of the unlettered. In modern use, the double negative is widely perceived as a rustic and uneducated form, and is indeed common in the speech of less educated people.

There are two important points here. The first is that it is the least educated who preserve the older forms of the language. Those who vaunt their conservative tastes might like to reflect on that. The second is that the uneducated are often the underprivileged and the underprivileged tend to attract the scorn of those more fortunate. The language they use is an easy target, but the language of the underprivileged is just as linguistically valid as all other varieties.

Jenny Cheshire, at the time Professor of Linguistics at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, elaborates this point in her chapter entitled ‘Double Negatives Are Illogical’ in that excellent book ‘Language Myths’, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. She reports that, prompted by an invitation from the BBC in 1986, listeners to a Radio 4 programme in 1986 included double negatives among their top ten complaints about grammatical usage. British readers might not be surprised to hear of the suffering endured by the Radio 4 listeners who responded. (For non-British readers, BBC Radio 4 listeners, and I am of their number, are typically middle class and middle aged.) They said double negatives ’made their blood boil’, ‘gave a pain in the ear’, ‘made them shudder’ and ‘appalled’ them. I imagine similar responses would be given today.

Towards the end of the chapter, Cheshire comments that

. . . double negatives of the I don’t want nothing type, which nowadays are not used by politicians, potential poet laureates or scientists, but by Harlem youths, London East Enders and other groups in the community whose ancestors escaped the demands of polite society and the prescriptions of grammarians. These double negatives represent the survival of along-established pattern of negation in English and a natural pattern of negation in language generally. They might be recognized in this way if our greatest playwrights still used them. But as it is, they are stigmatized.

That means, in MWDEU’s words, that:

. . . it is not a prestige form; you are not likely to impress the boss, the teacher, or the job interviewer by using double negatives . . . You just have to pick your occasions.

Indeed. The skill in using language lies not in blindly following a set of arbitrary prescriptions, but in being sensitive to what grammatical constructions, what vocabulary, and even what accent, are appropriate at a particular time, in a particular place and for a particular purpose.

I have said nothing here about the use of the double negative as what MWDEU calls a weak affirmative, as in a not unpleasant day’. There is something to be said about it, but that use is not, I think, a candidate for inclusion in the Negative Canon. The other is.


Filed under The Negative Canon

What is Grammar, How Does It Change . . . ?

This is a lightly edited repeat of a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere.

Grammar is the set of rules that tells us how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, may be combined to form words (morphology) and how words may be combined to form sentences (syntax). One rule of English grammar, for example, tells us that regular verbs form their past tense and past participle by the addition of -ed. We have to say, in modern Standard English, he walked and not *he wolk. Another tells us that determiners precede nouns. We have to say my house and not *house my. If you want something a little less obvious, then consider the fact that in English an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

These are real rules, which no normal adult native speaker of English will break. That’s why grammar is a matter of fact. It contrasts with style, which is a matter of opinion. There is no rule of English grammar that prohibits what is known inaccurately to most people as a split infinitive. It follows that whether a writer chooses to write ‘to suddenly realise’ or ‘to realise suddenly’ is a matter of style, of opinion. Nor is there any rule of English grammar that requires ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive relative clause. So an American president may choose to say ‘a day which will live in infamy’ or ‘a day that will live in infamy’ (and we know what he did choose). Both choices in each case are grammatical.

The rules of Standard English are codified in scholarly works of grammar. The early ones were little more than a reflection of the writer’s own preferences, but the past 30 years have seen the publication of grammars that go far beyond that approach, and they have been enormously improved by the availability of the evidence found in vast electronic corpora. The three monumental works during this period are ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ by Quirk and others, ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ by Biber and others and ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. They are based on a thorough examination of the way modern English is actually used, for, as Henry Sweet wrote in 1891:

In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called ‘ungrammatical’ expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.

The same thought has been expressed in our own day by the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’:

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all.

As long ago as the early sixteenth century, John Colet saw that this was also true of Latin, as indeed it is of any language:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

It would take a major piece of research to compare these three very long (and expensive) books, although all three have shortened versions.  The authors of the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, at least, do have a different approach to some topics. They use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’, where others use ‘restrictive’ (or ‘defining’) and ‘non-restrictive’ (or ‘non-defining’) to describe the two types of relative clause. They do not consider what most others call the ‘were-subjunctive’ to be subjunctive at all, giving it instead the term ‘irrealis were’. Where most other linguists recognise only two English tenses, present and past, they speak of the perfect as ‘a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection’. They class as prepositions words that other grammars class as adverbs or subordinating conjunctions.

The ‘Longman Grammar’ draws heavily on evidence from the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus, and concentrates particularly on the grammatical differences between the four registers of Conversation, Fiction, News and Academic Prose. The stripped-down version, the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is one of the best general introductions to English grammar.

I suspect that there is much more agreement than disagreement in all three. They are concerned only with Standard English, and, as Huddleston and Pullum have written:

[There is] remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.

So much for the rules of grammar themselves. The answer to the question ‘How are they changed?’ the answer is that, unlike style, they generally change very slowly. The erosion of inflections, for example, has been going on for centuries, and it continues. Our pronouns are pale shadows of their former selves, and it looks as if the remaining inflections will reduce further, with the growing merging of I and me, for example, and the loss of  whom in all but the most formal contexts. The subjunctive, too, at least in British English, is all but extinct. These changes are not to be regretted. They are part of the very essence of language, and they occur because the needs of a language’s speakers change. Like the Sabbath, language was made for man, and not man for language. As Michael Halliday, the linguist most closely associated with Systemic Functional Linguistics, has written, ‘Language is as it is because of what it has to do’.

There is no single Standard English, but each major English-speaking state has its own standard. Any changes to those standards following the technological developments of the past few decades are likely to be in vocabulary rather than in grammatical structures. At the same time, the English used in computer mediated communication is developing its own grammatical forms. John McWhorter describes one aspect here. I would say that the most likely outcome is that the language of the web and texting, where it has its own identity, will grow alongside other varieties, rather than replace them.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Standard English

The Negative Canon: Agreement with Collective Nouns

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

I repeat here some of the points I made in an earlier post.

A default position in many languages is that a verb agrees in person and number, and sometimes gender, with the subject of the clause. Thus, in Standard English, we say The trees are green and the sky is blue. We don’t say *The trees is green and the sky are blue. (There is at least one exception. In Arabic, if the subject is plural and denotes things or animals, the verb is feminine singular.)

Now, there are some English words that have no plural marker, and yet which refer to a group of entities. They are usually called collective nouns. Here’s a selection of such words, taken from ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

class clergy club committee
company congregation council couple
crew crowd delegation department
executive faculty family government
group jury mob office
orchestra pair panel parliament
pu blic quartet team trio

Should these words be followed by a verb in the singular or plural, when both are available? Is it The crowd was becoming restless or The crowd were becoming restless? The orchestra plays that piece particularly well or The orchestra play that piece particularly well?

Well, it all depends. A few, not included above, always occur with a plural verb (cattle, people, police), while others (baggage, cutlery, dinnerware) always occur with a single verb. (Examples of the first from ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ and of the second from ‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’.) Those apart, BrEng (British English) seems more disposed than AmEng (American English) to follow a singular noun like government with a plural verb. Once the figures are adjusted to take account of the difference in the sizes of the corpora, the British National Corpus has ten times as many records as the Corpus of Contemporary American English for the government are. As the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ report (my emphasis):

The plural version is more common in BrE than in AmE — and in informal style rather than in formal written style, where some writers may have the feeling that the singular is grammatically more correct. It must be emphasised, however, that the plural construction is unquestionably fully grammatical in Standard English, and this is generally recognised by the usage manuals.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ describes collective nouns as having had ‘the characteristic of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English’, and goes on to state:

The principle involved . . . is simple: when the group is thought of as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used. All grammarians and usage commentators agree on the basic principle.

The  ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ supports this approach:

Singular collective nouns like team, government, committee allow either singular or plural concord in British English, but in American English the singular is the normal choice . . . Plural concord, where it occurs, puts the focus on the individuals making up the group, rather than the group as a whole . . . In fact, nearly all human collective nouns occasionally occur with plural concord in British English.

Pam Peters elaborates on the choice in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English’, where she explains the difference of emphasis between singular and plural agreement with the examples:

The family has decided to celebrate on Sunday.
The family have decided to celebrate on Sunday.

She comments:

The choice of verb makes it either formal or notional agreement, and carries slightly different implications. The singular verb implies an official consensus of the group, whereas the plural makes the reader/listener more aware that individual members assented to the suggestion.

R L Trask goes further in ‘Mind the Gaffe’, where he writes:

In British English, the verbal agreement may be either singular or plural. It is always plural when the writer has the several members of the group in mind . . . But it is commonly plural even when the group is thought of as a unitary entity.

Even the normally stern and dogmatic Harry Blamires concedes in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ that:

. . . while it is correct to say ‘The audience was small’, it is also correct to say ‘The audience were screaming and waving their hands’. In the former case, ‘the audience’  is the whole body. In the latter case ‘the audience is the gathered individuals.

Thus, to insist, as some seem to do, on formal, rather than notional, agreement with collective nouns in all contexts is to deny the practice of many speakers of the language, to challenge the conclusions of respected linguists and to be insensitive to the range of expression which English has to offer.


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: [Noun Phrase] and ‘I’/‘Me’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

The English personal pronouns are I/me, you/you, he/him, she/ her, it/it, we/us and they/them. The first form of each pair is, in traditional terminology, in the nominative case, and the second is in the accusative case, where the nominative case is used for the subject of a clause and the accusative case is used for the object of a clause and following a preposition. This means that we say, at least in Standard English, She saw him and He saw her rather than *Her saw he or *Him saw she, and He came towards me rather than *He came towards I.

So far, so clear. However, variation can occur when the first person (I/me) is coordinated with a noun or with another pronoun, as in:

(1) They invited my wife and [I/me] to lunch.


(2) There’s a great deal in common between you and [I/me].

I imagine the majority of those who read this will say that what happens when I/me occurs alone must also apply in other circumstances too. We wouldn’t say They invited I, so we can’t say They invited my wife and I. We wouldn’t follow a preposition with I, so we can’t follow a preposition with <…> and I. This argument is put forward by both Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ and R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’. Blamires cites this example from the former British Prime Minister John Major, commenting that we may see from it ‘how deeply this error has corrupted us’:

It may be that many people would like to invent divisions between he and I, but there are none.

I have myself heard David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary and the brother of the Leader of the Labour Party say on BBC radio:

. . . invite Michael Howard and I . .

Trask makes the point about not using I in those contexts where it occurs alone and continues:

The presence of that ‘and’ seems to throw many writers into a panic, a panic which inevitably leads to the insertion of an impossible ‘I’ where only ‘me’ is possible.

However, the OED records I ‘as object of a verb or preposition’ and notes that it is:

Used for the objective case after a verb or preposition when separated from the governing word by other words (esp. in coordinate constructions with another pronoun and and).This has been common at various times (especially towards the end of the 16th and in the 17th century, and from the mid 20th century onwards); it has been considered ungrammatical since the 18th century.

There you are, those 18th century grammarians again. Hypercorrection is the usual explanation, but, as Peter Harvey has commented:

If the usage was ‘very frequent’ 400 years ago, hypercorrection cannot really be the whole reason for its use nowadays.

It could even be argued that and me rather than and I is itself a form of hypercorrection.

The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (p. 9) challenge the view that what happens when a pronoun occurs in isolation must determine what happens when it has company:

But why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun?

They cite another example of where the rules make just such a differentiation. We can say I don’t know if you’re eligible, but we can’t say I don’t know if she and you’re eligible. They comment that the sequence you are can be reduced to you’re in the first sentence, where you is subject, but not in the second where the subject has the form of a coordination of pronouns.

This shows us not only that a rule of English could apply differently to pronouns and coordinated pronouns, but that one rule actually does . . .The argument from analogy is illegitimate.

Elsewhere they write that constructions such as (1) are (my emphasis):

. . . used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should therefore be regarded as a variant Standard English form.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) records Henry Sweet’s suggestion in his ‘New English Grammar’ of 1892 that you and I occurs so frequently that it comes to be seen as an invariable group in all contexts. This comes close to Chomsky,mentioned later in the MWDEU article, when he claimed that :

. . . [‘between’]can assign the objective case agreement only to the whole compound, which cannot be declined, and the individual words in the phrase are free to be nominative or objective or even be reflexives.

The preference for between you and me over between you and I, at least, seems strong, as shown by the following figures:

British National Corpus Corpus of Contemporary American English
Between you and me 43 183
Between you and I 2 17

Still, the preference is much less marked when the search is narrowed to spoken English, and the two examples of between you and I in the British National Corpus occur in sentences which must be considered as Standard English. The first is from a radio programme:

But at a fundamental level there’s really little difference between you and I struggling to count on our fingers, and the most modern and sophisticated piece of computing wizardry.

The second is from a piece of dialogue in a Mills and Boon novel:

I felt as if I knew you, and you knew me — almost from the beginning of time. It was as if, between you and I, the ordinary processes of — what shall I call it… courtship? — were totally superfluous.

If you think a citation from a Mills and Boon novel too down-market to count, Shakespeare had Bassanio say in ‘The Merchant of Venice’:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death.

We can take from all of this that both you and me and you and I in object position and following a preposition, particularly between, occur in the speech of speakers of Standard English, but that it might be unwise to use the latter variant in formal prose. As Pam Peters very sensibly comments in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

The vacillation over ‘me/I’ is symptomatic of shifting case relations among pronouns generally . . . But because between you and I seems to have become a shibboleth it’s to be avoided in writing. In fact a confidential between you and I is unlikely to occur to anyone writing a formal document, because of the impersonal nature of the style that goes with it.

MWDEU comes to a similar conclusion:

You are probably safe in retaining ‘between you and I’ in your casual speech, if it exists there already, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature.

We could say the same about the constructions in sentences (1) and (4). More adventurous writers might like to use and I, but they must be prepared to have attention paid to the grammar of their writing at the expense of its content. There is, however, no reason to chastise its use in speech, or even in speeches. As is often the case, two forms exist side by side until one ousts the other. As Jean Aitchison once wrote:

Language lamenters mostly haven’t understood how language works. In language change, new variants grow up alongside existing ones, often as stylistic alternatives.

Differences between the forms of pronouns are less distinct than they once were (look at who and whom). That is only natural. Just as the three numbers, four cases and, in the third person, the three genders, of the Old English personal pronouns have eroded to what we have now, our present system seems to be in the process of reducing further.


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: Introduction

A fellow contributor to the LinkedIn group Grammar Geeks, Bessel Dekker, has suggested the term negative canon for those features of English that are frequently the object of the attention of those in various Facebook groups and elsewhere who seek to tell us how to use our own language. They complain about current developments in the language, oblivious to the fact that such developments are sometimes far from new, and that English contains features that have come about through the type of changes in the past that they condemn in the present. We are asked to accept what they say because that’s their opinion or what they’ve always been taught.

A prominent characteristic of the negative canon is that it consists of a relatively small number of features which come up time and again, and are often of the kind that Geoffrey Pullum has called ‘the most intellectually trivial details of standard written English’.  As an example, Bessel has listed the following salient features of Afro-American Vernacular English:

(1) the multiple negative.
(2) nonstandard forms such as aks.
(3) absence the forms of be when it is a copula.
(4) uninflected be when it is an existential verb.
(5) word order which is different from that in Standard English.

His point is that of these five, only the first two are habitually seized upon. Other instances include sentence adverbs, where hopefully is often disdained, but all the others are ignored. Similarly, the pronunciation mischievious is thought to be an indication of moral decline and the end of civilisation as we know it, but, as Bessel has said, it is not the first, let alone the only, case were epenthesis has caused language change.

Bessel has therefore made an important distinction between the negative canon and what he has called the negative pool. While the latter consists of all instances that could be objected against, the former comprises the usual suspects which are in fact singled out. Thus, sadly as a sentence adverb, for example, would be in the negative pool only, while hopefully has made the negative canon. The composition of the negative canon, it seems, is quite arbitrary, which suggests that no that no systematic study underlies it.

Bessel has suggested a few criteria which give an item a good chance of being included in the negative canon. They are:

(a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
(b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
(c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

(d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
(e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
(f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

It might, as Bessel has also suggested, be illuminating to compile an inventory of items that make up the negative canon and to trace each to its first source. That may be a little ambitious for Caxton, but in a series of forthcoming posts I plan to examine some of the usages in question in an attempt to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from prejudice, reality from fantasy. They can for convenience be considered under the headings of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography and punctuation. Negative canon posts will not be in any particular order, and not necessarily uninterrupted by unrelated posts.


Filed under Language, The Negative Canon

Weinreich Revisited

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Warsaw Will and John Cowan raised some interesting points about Standard English in response to my post of 30 June, and they deserve fuller treatment than would be possible in a further comment. The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, poor man, is remembered chiefly as the alleged source of the quotation that heads this post, and it is one to bear in mind in considering various views on the status of a standard language variety.

A number of definitions of Standard English are available, but this by Richard Hudson will serve as well as any. It is the kind of English which is:

1. written in published work,
2. spoken in situations where published writing is most influential, especially in education (and especially at University level),
3. spoken “natively” (at home) by people who are most influenced by published writing – the “professional class”.

Will pointed out that there is more than one Standard English. There is British Standard English and there is American Standard English, and there are many more besides. Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, seems to support this view when she writes (my emphasis):

‘The expression British English is generally used to distinguish the standard form of English used in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the varieties used in other parts of the world.’

John seemed to disagree with this view, suggesting that Standard English was a global phenomenon, ‘being spoken with one accent or another in every English-speaking country, and indeed in every other country as well.’

My own belief, subject, as always, to adjustment in the light of contrary evidence, is that English varies between, but is conterminous with, various English-speaking states. Americans walk on the sidewalk and Britons walk on the pavement. An American committee might recommend that an employee be dismissed, and a British committee might equally recommend that an employee is dismissed, or should be dismissed. Each will be using a different Standard English. This suggests to me that a standard dialect is one that is used nationally, that is, within a single political entity, or state. We speak of British Standard English and American Standard English, not of Yorkshire Standard English or Wisconsin Standard English.

Will pointed to the way in which Glasgow University recognises a Scottish Standard English, a ‘variety of language normally used in formal, non-fictional written texts in Scotland . . . It is very close to standard Englishes elsewhere in the UK, North America and Australasia, but has some distinctive features.’ It gives the following examples of the ways in which ‘the grammar of Scottish Standard English differs from its southern cousin in certain grammatical features and idioms.

Scottish Standard English English Standard English
Can I come too? May I come too?
I would, if I was you. I should, if I were you.
My hair needs washed. My hair needs/wants washing.
He’ll not do that. He won’t do that.
I have one of those already. I’ve got one of those already.
Do you have any? Have you got any?
Does anybody know? Does anyone know?
She’s a braw lass. She’s a pretty girl.
He’s hurt his pinkie. He’s hurt his little finger.
Where do you stay? Where do you live?

Anybody, braw lass, pinkies and stay are matters of vocabulary rather than grammar, and even then anybody is just as likely to be heard in England as in Scotland, and pinkie has broken out of its original Scottish confines. With one exception, there doesn’t seem to me be anything specifically Scottish about the grammatical constructions in the left-hand column. The only one perhaps found in Scotland alone is My hair needs washed. I considered this construction in a post in 2009, where I suggested that If you need anything sliced, just ask was just as possible in England as If you need anything slicing, just ask. If that is the only example available, it doesn’t suggest that there is a distinct Scottish English grammar. I would say that the English used by many Scots was distinguished by its accent and vocabulary, rather than by its grammar.

If there is one day an independent Scotland, it may make sense to speak of a Scottish Standard English, just as historical developments have changed the linguistic landscape elsewhere. As David Crystal writes in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’,

As one crosses a well-established national boundary, the variety of speech will change its name . . . It is important to recognise that the reasons are political and historical, not linguistic. Arguments over language names often reduce to arguments of a political nature.

He later points to the situation in Scandinavia, where

using just the intelligibility criterion, there are really only two Scandinavian languages: Continental and Insular. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other’s speech, to a greater or lesser extent. But as soon as non-linguistic criteria are taken into account . . . [t]o be Norwegian is to speak Norwegian, to be Danish is to speak Danish; and so on.

Similarly, the language spoken in large parts of the former Yugoslavia was Serbo-Croat. Now that Serbia and Croatia are separate sovereign states, there are two languages, Serbian and Croatian.

If Scotland continues to be part of the United Kingdom, there will continue to be a single British Standard English used in the United Kingdom. Varieties of the language spoken, and occasionally written, in its various parts are dialects. There is no more a Scottish Standard English than there is there a Welsh Standard English, a Northern Irish Standard English, or even an English Standard English. That’s because it’s not so much that a language is a dialect with an army and navy as because the standard variety of a language, within a single state, is a dialect with an army and navy.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

The Grammar of Speech

As a supplement to my post yesterday, it might be of some interest to mention that Ronald Carter (‘Grammar and Spoken English’ in ‘Applying English Grammar’) has listed some of the ways in which the grammar of spoken English differs from the grammar of written English. They include:

‘Heads’ and ‘tails’. Heads ‘occur at the beginning of clauses and help listeners orient to a topic’:

The white house on the corner, is that where she lives?

That girl, Jill, her sister, she works in our office.

Tails ‘occur at the end of clauses, normally echoing an antecedent pronoun and help to reinforce what we are saying’:

She’s a very good swimmer, Jenny is.

It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?

Ellipsis ‘in which subjects and verbs are omitted because we can assume our listeners know what we mean’.

Discourse markers. Anyway, right, okay, I see, I mean, mind you, well, right, what’s more, so, now.

Vague language. Words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, or anything, or whatever, sort of.

Deixis. ‘The “orientational” features of language and includes words and phrases which point to particular features of a situation.’

Modal expressions. Modal verbs, but also words and phrases such as: possibly, probably, I don’t know, I don’t think, I think, I suppose, perhaps.

Carter quotes this piece of speech from ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Sure we got there um at seven actually around six fifteen and class starts at seven and I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high and I was the only one there and I was the only one there I was. And I yeah I was thinking gosh you know is this the right place or may be everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in there’s nothing said you know come on in knock on the door and come in or anything like that.

That is very different from what we’d expect to find in a piece of formal writing, but isn’t it still Standard English?


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Spoken English, Standard English

Questioning the Standard

My post of 22 June, followed by my comments on 24 June, placed some Standard English variants alongside some nonstandard forms to show the difference, but the grammatical structures of Standard English are not generally all that difficult to recognise. There is, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write,

remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.

Native speakers, for example, will instantly know that He’s a grandfather now, I was about 13 at the time and They did well are Standard English and that  He be a grandfather now, I were about 13 at the time and They done good are not.

In his paper on Standard English, Peter Trudgill writes ‘grammatical differences between Standard English and other dialects are in fact rather few in number’. He lists eight of what he calls the idiosyncrasies of Standard English, which include its failure to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms, its lack of multiple negation and its irregular forms of the verb be. Nevertheless, there are some features of Standard English that are disputed. The ill-informed are eager to pounce on things like they referring to a singular antecedent, stranded prepositions and word placed between to + the infinitive, but these have existed in English for centuries, and have been part of Standard English for as long as the concept of a standard has existed. What may be less clear is the way in which Standard English can deploy different styles depending on the degree of formality required. Trudgill illustrates the point with these three sentences:

Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination.
Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey.
The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip.

All three employ the grammatical structures of Standard English, but different degrees of formality are indicated by the words used. Some might question the third, but Trudgill has no hesitation in saying that it ‘is clearly and unambiguously Standard English’, on the grounds that it allows swearing (in this case mild) and slang.

But it’s not only through the choice of words that Standard English can show degrees of formality. It can do so through different grammatical structures as well. Examples of grammar indicating an informal style are who in complement position or following a preposition, the indicative If I was you . . . rather than the subjunctive (or ‘irrealis’), If I were you . . . , There’s + [plural noun phrase] and the use of this in place of the indefinite article (There was this man at the bar, and he’d got this dog). Warsaw Will, the creator of the blog Random Idea English , has also commented on my post of 22 June that me in subject position and coordinated with a noun phrase (Me and the others are off to the pub if you fancy a pint), might also be an example of informal Standard English.

The fact that some of these features might also be found in nonstandard dialects should not prevent us from acknowledging their admissibility in the standard as well. But it does suggest that the dividing line between Standard English and nonstandard dialects might not be as sharply drawn as some might think. As the authors of ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ have written,

Sociolinguistic research has demonstrated that the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures.

What all this suggests is that the varieties of English can be understood as a continuum. At one end there are the most formal written texts, found in areas such as academic writing, the law and public administration. These are incontestably written in the dialect of Standard English, although that does not guarantee that all native speakers will understand them. At the other end there are nonstandard dialects, mostly spoken, which, at their most extreme, are as impenetrable to outsiders as the most complex statute drafted in Standard English. In between there are varieties of the language which shade off imperceptibly one into the other. What really matters is not whether any piece of discourse is standard or nonstandard, but whether it meets the communicative purpose of the writer or speaker, taking account not only of the efficiency with which it conveys meaning, but also the extent to which it is received in the manner which the originator intends.


Filed under English Language, Language, Standard English

Standard or Non?

Six of the following sentences are written in Standard English. Which are they? Answers and comments in my next post.

1. Yon house hasn’t been lived in for a year.
2. I ain’t seen nothing.
3. Someone should have told us, shouldn’t they?
4. I only done it last week.
5. This check-out is for less than five items.
6. Can I go now?
7. Happen she were in a hurry.
8. You’ll need to slowly back out and then turn round.
9. It was only when I come home that I seen it.
10. What was you after?
11. I’m afraid I don’t really know who you’re referring to.
12. They invited my husband and I to lunch.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

There’s So Many Questions Here – Or Are There?

There’s lots of people outside. There’s a few things I’d like to discuss with you. There’s too many sentences in this paragraph. Those are all sentences you might hear native English speakers say. You might hear me say them.

There’s followed by a plural noun phrase is found in non-standard dialects, as in this OED citation from 1888: There’s a good many chores I ‘ant a put down at all. The gutter’s a-stapped again. Is it a feature of Standard English? It is if we recognise, as John Ayto does, that ‘there is both written and spoken Standard English’ (‘The Oxford School A–Z of English’ in Paul Kerswill’s ‘RP, Standard English and the standard/non-standard relationship’   (and, in passing, we might note his there is followed by a compound noun phrase). Ayto cites the use of bust for broken as appropriate in speech but probably not in writing. He also accepts I didn’t use to like eggs as the spoken alternative to I used not to like egg’, which he recommends for written usage. Similarly, Peter Trudgill describes a sentence such as The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip, while colloquial and informal, as being ‘clearly and unambiguously Standard English’. He contrasts it with Father were very tired after his lengthy journey, which is nonstandard but formal.

I think we can take a similar approach to ‘there (i)’s’ + plural noun phrase. There’s probably good reasons for that (an authentic example) is informal Standard English in a way that There probably be good reasons for that, grammatical in some nonstandard dialects, would not be. If you don’t like informality, you’re entitled not to do so, but the right to be informal should not be denied to others.

Pam Peters goes further. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ she writes that

various uses of ‘there’s’ with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard. It seems to be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French ‘C’est . . .’, serving the needs of the ongoing discourse rather than the grammar of the sentence.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Spoken English, Standard English