Is There Such a Thing as 'Correct' English?

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It seems there's a phony war playing out in social media. For every 'gotcha!' snap of an improperly punctuated shop sign, there's a punchy dot point list of 'grammar rules you can ignore'. For every volley of outraged comments bemoaning falling education standards, there's a hail of gleefully language-mashing tweets from one pundit or another.

And as they line up - proud prescriptivists behind Lynne Truss and her 'zero-tolerance approach to punctuation', determined descriptivists behind their Pinkers and Crystals - we editors are left sighing bemused on the sidelines, fantasising about our ultimate stylesheet.

'Context,' we mutter. 'Consistency. Audience.' Shrug and turn away, and get down to the job of working with words.

For those who'd like to delve more philosophically into the debate, Geoffrey Marnell offers Correct English: reality or myth?

Trained as a philosopher and with experience in technical communications, he offers a persuasive argument for correctness as a myth. His introduction situates the debate well, and exposes the elitism-bordering-on-bullying that can underpin prescriptivism. The illogical generation-thin conservatism that decries language change is neatly skewered. The familiar shibboleths (split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions, sentence-opening conjunctions ...) are dealt with dismissively, and at length. The impact of new technologies is touched on at critical points, with some valuable insights.

I'm not sure how many readers would be happy to work through 50 early pages of (in the author's words) 'the cold, unemotional tools of philosophical dissection', in which dictionary definitions of 'correct' are exhaustively interrogated. (Walnuts and sledgehammers come to mind.) But such logic does provide some diverting detours. The spelling of night (or nite) is compared with the correct (or not) cooking of asparagus. More startlingly, faith in language's capacity for 'adopting changes for the better (and compensating for changes for the worse)' segues into a discussion of slavery and the stoning of adulterers.

In making a distinction between laws, rules and conventions, Correct English? offers clarity and nuance. It stresses effective communication. Nonstandard usage is hailed as often more rich, explicit and expressive than standard usage; words 'shunned by the educated and influential' are celebrated. (In the case of our colloquial Aussie 'youse', celebrated in a poem stretching across three pages.) More than a practical challenge for writers and editors, the policing of our shared language is framed as a moral and ethical endeavour.

As a teacher of editing, I found the final chapter, 'Learning the Lingo', especially pertinent. Students learn to mistrust their intuitive grammar when exposed to explicit classroom instruction; striving towards understanding and mastery can create a hunger for decisiveness over variability (and the dreaded, but will I get a mark for that on the test?). 'Treat the classroom as a transit lounge for knowledge,' stresses Marnell. It's good and empowering advice, if harder to put into practice than it sounds. Where strongly held conventions apply, he says, follow them. Where rival conventions exist, look for the option that best supports effective communication. Where none stands out, do as you please.

For those after a similar argument, but with livelier discussion, more compelling elaborations and easier-to-find zingers, there's Oliver Kamm's Accidence will happen. His approach is so accommodating it borders on promiscuous. In contrast, there's something avuncular about Correct English? - a touch of the cardigan-clad and slow-moving, but with a twinkle in the eye and combative when aroused.

Stephanie Holt
Program Coordinator of Professional Writing and Editing and RMIT,
and editor of the PEN Melbourne Quarterly

Correct English: Reality or Myth? Geoffrey Marnell, Burdock Books 2015

Accidence will happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage Oliver Kamm, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015