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Communications News

Why There Is No Such Thing as 'Proper English' 667

Pikoro writes: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains why the concept of a "proper" English isn't realistic. Quoting: "It's a perpetual lament: The purity of the English language is under assault. These days we are told that our ever-texting teenagers can't express themselves in grammatical sentences. The media delight in publicizing ostensibly incorrect usage. ... As children, we all have the instinct to acquire a set of rules and to apply them. ... We know that a certain practice is a rule of grammar because it’s how we see and hear people use the language. ... That’s how scholarly linguists work. Instead of having some rule book of what is “correct” usage, they examine the evidence of how native and fluent nonnative speakers do in fact use the language. Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct. The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions.
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Why There Is No Such Thing as 'Proper English'

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:12PM (#49264417)

    But it's damn certain there is Improper English.

    • by thechemic ( 1329333 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:31PM (#49264517)
      No thangs up in dis biatch found fo' A recent article up in tha Wall Street Journal explains why tha concept of a "proper" Gangsta aint realistic. Quoting: "It aint nuthin but a perpetual lament: Da puritizzle of tha Gangsta language is under assault. These minutes we is holla'd at dat our ever-textin teenagers can't express theyselves up in grammatical sentences. Da media delight up in publicizin ostensibly incorrect usage. .. fo' realz. As children, we all have tha instinct ta acquire a set of rulez n' ta apply em. ... We know dat a cold-ass lil certain practice be a rule of grammar cuz its how tha fuck we peep n' hear playas use tha language. ... That's how tha fuck scholarly linguists work. Instead of havin some rule book of what tha fuck is "correct" usage, they examine tha evidence of how tha fuck natizzle n' fluent nonnatizzle speakers do up in fact use tha language. Whatever is up in general use up in a language (not any use yo, but general use) is fo' dat reason grammatically erect. Da grammatical rulez invoked by pedants arent real rulez of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions..
      • by thechemic ( 1329333 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:36PM (#49264553)

        Here is all of slashdot translated into "unproper english". Makes me laugh. LOL!

        http://www.gizoogle.net/tranzizzle.php?search=http%3A%2F%2Fslashdot.org%2F&se=Go+Git+Dis+Shiznit

      • by meta-monkey ( 321000 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @09:37AM (#49266571) Journal

        That's how tha fuck scholarly linguists work.

        If I were a scholarly linguist, this would be my new .sig.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Despite everything, I insist that the word "unisex" is incorrect. "Uni" means "one!" It does not mean "many" or "all."

        In the word "universe," it is the "verse" part of the word that makes it mean "all things." The "uni" part of the word means "taken as one."

        The word should be "omnisex." That is what people mean when they say "unisex." So, that is what they should say instead.

        I secretly pass harsh judgment against everyone who says "unisex" when they mean "omnisex."

    • by The Rizz ( 1319 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:33PM (#49264531)

      I would agree. And I think the notion of teaching "Proper English" is less about saying common usage is wrong than it is with trying to slow down the fragmentation of the language into dialects. If you can teach one set of rules for the language as being "correct" and make sure everyone understands it that way, then at least you have a common starting point for all the different dialects, and hopefully keep people ostensibly speaking the same language actually able to understand each other.

      • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @12:52AM (#49264861)

        trying to slow down the fragmentation of the language into dialects.

        English is not fragmenting. It is coalescing into a single global language. A century ago, English spoken in widely separated areas, like say Australia and America, were much further apart than they are today. In the past, even different regions of America, like say New England and the Deep South, sometimes had difficulty communicating. Today, regional accents are slowly dying out, and vocabulary is standardizing. Part of the reason is easy air travel, but bigger reasons are the globalization of media and entertainment, and the Internet.

      • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @02:13AM (#49265097)

        I would agree. And I think the notion of teaching "Proper English" is less about saying common usage is wrong than it is with trying to slow down the fragmentation of the language into dialects.

        If governments and institutions really wanted to slow down the fragmentation of the English language, then they would just standardize on American Los Angeles Hollywood English.

        As it stands, most people are selfish and most people are the center of their own little worlds. They're perfectly willing to make their own dialect the new standard that everybody else has to abide to, especially to get jobs and government benefits, they're perfectly willing to make their language a marker of group identity and group pride, but they're unwilling to change their own language when it is found that another dialect is becoming the new standard.

        A perfect manifestation of this kind selfishness is the British queen. Why can't she just learn proper Hollywood english like everybody else? She's just holding her own people back if she continues on this path.

  • by Patent Lover ( 779809 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:12PM (#49264421)
    That's unpossible.
    • Rike wot th queen does.
  • Should be: Why They're Ain't Any Such Thing as "Proper English."

    Your welcome.

    • by fisted ( 2295862 )
      Thanks for you're insight
    • by sycodon ( 149926 )

      Why they ain't be nothing such as "Proper English"

    • Re:Headline Is Wrong (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:36PM (#49264557)

      Should be: Why They're Ain't Any Such Thing as "Proper English."

      Author has apparently never heard of Strunk & White.

      It's a bit of a conflict of interest for a writer to say there are "no rules", when in fact there are. And English doesn't actually change anywhere near as fast as many of these folks claim. Fads come and go, while the underlying rules persist, generation after generation.

      If that were not true, you would not be able to make sense of Shakespeare today. But you can, except for the occasional stray word. You still get the meaning.

      • by shilly ( 142940 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @05:56AM (#49265645)

        There is something exquisitely irritating about a post that says "Author has apparently never heard of Strunk & White" when the article explicitly discusses Strunk and White. FFS, Jane Q Public, would it really have troubled you that much to have read the article you've chosen to criticise, at least to save yourself from looking like a complete and utter tit?

      • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @08:15AM (#49266053)

        Author has apparently never heard of Strunk & White.

        The Elements of Style by Strunk & White is a set of opinions [wikipedia.org], not a set of rules. All the difference in the world. I can point you at numerous books and experts on grammar and writing that disagree with significant portions of that overused book.

        It's a bit of a conflict of interest for a writer to say there are "no rules", when in fact there are.

        There is no single authoritative set of rules for the English language. There are rules in the sense that there are commonly agreed to informal "standards" which persist for a time based on culture and comprehensibility but it is quite correct to say that that there aren't any rules in the sense of rules laid down by an authoritative body.

        Fads come and go, while the underlying rules persist, generation after generation.

        Quite simply not true. You merely have to go back far enough in time to get to a point where the language is no longer the same. Old English [wikipedia.org] is for all practical purposes a completely different language than our modern version of English.

        If that were not true, you would not be able to make sense of Shakespeare today.

        Perhaps you haven't actually studied Shakespeare. Significant portions of his writing are quite inscrutable today without an explanation of the context, temporal usage and intent. That said, Shakespeare isn't so far removed from us that it is impossible to read - it's just a few hundred years and languages usually don't evolve that quickly. Go read Beowulf in the original Old English and tell me again that the rules of the language never change over time.

    • Re:Headline Is Wrong (Score:4, Interesting)

      by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:36PM (#49264559)

      Someone mod that up. It's better than TFA.

      Speaking of, from TFA:

      There are different dialects of English, all of which conform to grammatical structures.

      He's got the dialect part correct. But he left out things like slang and local idioms and so forth.

      But it is not possible for everyone, or the majority of educated users of the language, to be wrong on the same point at the same time.

      "educated" ... that's the problem.

      If you are "educated" then wouldn't you know the correct usage?

      So he's falling back on whatever the majority (as he sees it) uses as being ... not incorrect.

      But in the end, he's wrong. You can mix Yoda-speak/LOLcat with the latest slang and your friends will probably understand you.

      But it will probably not impress when you use it on your resume.

    • What's with that city slicker dialect, are you putting on airs? It's "Why thar Taint No Such Thang!"

  • i dun get dis. some1 DTF?
  • There are more people studying English in China than the entire population of England. The English language does NOT belong to the native speakers - it belongs to the world. It is the "lingua franca" of our age (and doesn't that phrase piss off the French!).
    • by aevan ( 903814 )
      So we should have more aggressively defended our Trademark?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:30PM (#49264511)

      Why would they? They term "lingua franca" (italian for "language of the Frankish") originated during the renaissance to describe a "universal" language spoken throughout the mediterranean and used for commerce and trade. It is composed of mostly Italian (80%) with some greek, portuguese, arabic, spanish, old french, occitan. In this context, the term "Franca" (Frankish) does not describe "France". The term "Franca" was used by Greeks, Arabs and others to describe Western Europe.

    • A few years ago I was at a conference in Germany, which was mostly held in English, with a few sessions in German. One of the speakers started out by saying that in some previous conferences he'd apologized for his English, but had been told by the moderator (who was Turkish) that "Bad English is the most widely spoken language in the world."

  • ah doesn't reckon yer thesis is necessarily co'reck, an' thet th' article is cornfusin' dialeck wif language.

    I don't fink yor thesis is necessarily correct, right, and that the article is confusin' dialect wiv 'am sandwich.

    Or maybe you reckon the above is "English"?

    • by snowgirl ( 978879 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:27PM (#49264495) Journal

      I imagine that you think Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all different languages...

      In spelling, Norwegian has two methods of writing: Nynorsk, and Bokmål... one is more like Swedish, the other is more like Danish, respectively...

      But in the end, it's all just spelling the spelling, as they're all mutually intelligible. There is less different between the Scandinavian languages than Spanish and especially Arabic.

      There is less difference between Romanian and Moldavian than there is between American and British English, yet some Moldavians insist that they speak a different language in order to create an "us vs them"

      Linguists know that a language is just a dialect with an army.

      • I imagine that you think Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all different languages...But in the end, it's all just spelling the spelling, as they're all mutually intelligible.

        Which is pretty much the same state of affairs with English and American although there are quite a few words which are completely different: lift vs. elevator, car bonnet vs. car hood, courgette vs. zucchini, aubergine vs. egg plant, car boot vs. car trunk etc. and more confusing an English word can have a different meaning in American and vice versa often to embarrassing effect e.g. rubber, pants, suspenders, chips, fanny etc.

        This is why it is helpful to give the two 'languages' different names: they

  • by bosef1 ( 208943 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:19PM (#49264453)

    The article doesn't explain why there is no prescriptive body for the English Language; something that would be equivalent to the Acdemie fancaise. Instead it discusses how English lacks a prescriptive basis, and how it becomes incumbent upon the speaker to match their use of the language their audience and purpose for speaking.

    • There is in a sense, but it is informal, not institutionalized.

      Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, is one of those informal "rule" books, in the same sense that Emily Post wrote a book that was (informally but very widely) considered to be the "bible" of American etiquette.
    • The lack of a prescriptive body for English is a historical accident, the same way the United Kingdom doesn't have a constitution, just a shitload of case law, treaties and statutes. For quite some time, Norman French was the language of government - naturally, the government did not try to regulate the grammar of a language they never spoke. After that, it was a populist thing - trying to formalize English would cause backlash at your supposed elitism. There was a brief window where a prescriptive body cou

  • The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions."

    Some of us pedants are aware of how non-grammar the "grammar" rules are, and actually champion wider usage!

    Double negatives are totally awesome, and there's no reason to think they're bad. Split infinitives are totally ok too, because the "to" is not actually part of the real English infinitive! And ending sentences with a preposition is exactly what every Germanic language has, dones and always will do. Because it's not a preposition, it's a component of a complex verb.

    • And ending sentences with a preposition is exactly what every Germanic language has, dones and always will do.

      "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put." - Churchill.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well... the loss in grammar actually loses meaning too.

      In 'proper' English:
      If I were rich...
      and
      If I was rich....
      have different meanings. 'were' implies a hypothetical situation. 'was' implies it might have actually been true in the past.

      Common English uses 'was' for both situations.

      • And in AAVE "he be workin'" and "he workin'" have very different verb moods.

        But everyone seems to insist that it's lazy English... so...

        And no "*If I was rich..." doesn't make any sense when you allow for use of subjunctives. It's a wrong mood verb stuck into a sentence. It's like saying "I were a good girl!" instead of "I was a good girl!"

        The use of "was" as in past tense and "was" as in the subjunctive are actually in mutually exclusive use. That's why English even bothered to lose the subjunctive in the

  • Given the copious amounts of written language-related pedantry found here (search for "begs/begging the question" and related discussion), this is a surprisingly relevant topic. I wonder if programmers and other tech types tend to get overly hung up on language rules because of their profession. When it comes to computer languages, after all, if you're not borderline pedantic, you're likely to write sloppy or buggy code.

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:28PM (#49264499) Journal

    However, it has nothing to do with purity. English is famously a language which mugs other languages for their vocabulary. But just because it is impure and inconsistent doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

  • by jpellino ( 202698 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:31PM (#49264521)
    unloyal dahlia cloud blacklegged gwyniad timorously. Denoting cobb browser emulsifier kearney underthroating flowage drysdale. Outsprue antipolitics handwrought palatable phosphatized preliberated fico overheadiness. Or maybe not.
  • Latin turned into Italian (and Spanish and French etc.), modern English grew out of Old English which is incomprehensible to everyone except linguists today, and yes, even modern English will be a dead language someday. Languages drift, film at 11.
    • modern English grew out of Old English

      Actually it grew out of a combination of Old English and Medieval French.

  • One manager was really bothered by "my bad", which used to be "my mistake". He called it "gang slang". "My bad" has slipped into common usage it seems to me. I'll avoid it around him, but he came across as a fuddy-duddy. He should be thankful people admit their mistakes, something uncommon around here.

  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:37PM (#49264563) Homepage Journal
    There may not be such a thing as proper English, but yours is still bad!
  • your and you're would be synonyms by now. That is problem with such an absolute. Yes languages change natural with use because much of what makes up a language is arbitrary. But much also is not arbitrary, it is a certain way because otherwise it would be impossible to communicate effectively. It does not matter how many millions of people regularly confuse your for you're it will never become correct because it is necessary for the language to have those words remain distinct.
  • by DeanCubed ( 814869 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:37PM (#49264567)

    people shouldn't say "For all intensive purposes" or "should/could/would of"?

  • Yes it's a frightening fact, our language is alive and if we blink we will be left behind. But it's a wonderful thing to see when our eyes are open. English is by far the biggest language and, lamentably, the most difficult for others to learn but that is exactly the reason to learn it. Many concepts in science, technology, engineering, obscenities, medicine etc cannot be adequately expressed in other languages.

    English has always stolen from other languages (and the other way too) and it has always been a h

  • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:50PM (#49264625) Homepage Journal

    The whole premise of the article is a pandering to the youth with an excuse for their illiterate and malformed excuses for use of the language. As per usual, "you don't get it, grandpa" is presented as a valid excuse for a lack of education and for football players in university who can't write a simple one page essay that can even garner a 50% grade.

  • nonsensical (Score:5, Insightful)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:52PM (#49264635) Journal

    Yes, a language is a dynamic thing. The rules are constantly changing, and what was 'unacceptable' to purists is okay for casual use, and what was casual use only ten years ago might be perfectly acceptable even in rigorous settings today.

    Further, English is a very agglomerative language; it's turned out to be astonishingly tolerant of loan words, adoptions, etc from other languages freely. Thus, at least in American English particularly, there's a tolerance (largely, I suspect, due to our immigrant past) for odd phrasings, word orders, or odd usage that eventually may become common parlance.

    NEVERTHELESS, as much as it's getting down into the weeds of linguistic OCD to insist (or not) on the Oxford comma, or avoiding prepositional endings, or on specific adjectival orders (there's a rabbit hole if you want to see grammarians duking it out), that doesn't mean that there aren't rules of usage that are common for understanding, or that "there are no real rules at all" as this article seems to claim.

    Yes, it's very intellectual to assert there are no rules, but a normal person recognized that's stupid: of COURSE there are rules. Are they regularly ignored? Sure. Should they be? It depends on context; if you're talking with your friends "u" is probably a perfectly acceptable replacement for "you". If you're writing a business letter, it will simply make you look like a moron.

    If someone points it out to you, Insisting with sophomoric sincerity that "well there really are no rules in English anyway" will simply certify their opinion.

  • by jcr ( 53032 ) <{moc.cam} {ta} {rcj}> on Sunday March 15, 2015 @11:54PM (#49264647) Journal

    I blame Murdoch.

    -jcr

  • Common ground. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by westlake ( 615356 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @12:03AM (#49264685)

    Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct. The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren't real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions.

    These conventions are what make communication possible between the old and the young, the past and the present. The speeches of Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King resonate to this day, without translation.

  • by TarPitt ( 217247 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @12:18AM (#49264763)

    Before a bunch of French speaking Vikings invaded in 1066, before Nordic speaking Vikings degraded the language.

    Ða wæs on uhtan mid ærdæge
    Grendles guðcræft gumum undyrne;
    a wæs æfter wiste wop up ahafen,
    micel morgensweg. Mære eoden,
    æeling ærgod, unbliðe sæt,
    olode ðryðswyð egnsorge dreah,
    syðan hie æs laðan last sceawedon,
    wergan gastes; wæs æt gewin to strang,
    lað ond longsum!

    THAT is proper English!

  • by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Monday March 16, 2015 @12:44AM (#49264847)

    Funny how often these articles come from the country that brought "sox", "labor", "dialog" and "liter" to the English-speaking world. ;-)

  • by mattr ( 78516 ) <mattr@noSpaM.telebody.com> on Monday March 16, 2015 @01:55AM (#49265063) Homepage Journal

    The problem is a popular culture that celebrates stupidity. If you want to break grammatical rules, either do so after reading Strunk & White and learning how to write properly. Then it's an artistic decision. Or you can learn English from lolcats and rappers, in which case you are just flaunting ignorance. I remember a drawing anatomy teacher who bemoaned a young artist's work. He had talent but never learned how to draw the human form. It is hard. However there's a difference, even if you paint abstract. There may be talented and educated rappers, but just because you can text and rhyme doesn't make you a poet or a journalist.

  • two branches (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Orgasmatron ( 8103 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @02:11AM (#49265093)

    Linguistics has two branches. One branch is descriptive linguistics which studies how language is used. The other is proscriptive, who describes how a language should be used. This divide is covered pretty often by language log [upenn.edu] (worth reading pretty often).

    This article is just someone discovering descriptive linguistics for the first time and ecstatic that their prejudgments are backed up by a branch of something that sounds like a science. Congratulations. "Science" has "proved" that there are no standards for language and all those teachers that marked up your papers with red pens were just being mean.

    There is no One True English, but there sure as hell is a Don't Sound Like a Moron English. Like it or not, people hear more than just what you say. They also hear how you say it, and they tend to figure out who you are, or at least, who you are similar to.

    Same goes with clothes. People know who you are just by looking at you. They may be wrong occasionally, and you can feel smug for subverting their expectations, but it is a tool that is right most of the time, and it seems to be wired very deeply into us, so no one is going to stop doing it.

    You can whine all you want about how unfair it is, but if you want your ideas heard, your best bet is to sound (and look) like someone worth listening to.

  • by umafuckit ( 2980809 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @03:26AM (#49265245)
    The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions.

    This is a silly blanket statement. It's true of some things, such as the split infinitive. Other things, such as correct comma placement, play an obvious role in understanding a sentence. I agree that languages evolve, but I don't think "text speak" is part of that evolution. Text speak is just lazy.

  • by houghi ( 78078 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @04:31AM (#49265411)

    This is the same for any living language. However I think that the rules stay similar over a very long time.Words might change, but gramar stays largely the same.

    Only when you start to look closer will you find difference. Not only over time, but also per region. These differnces will influence each other or not. e.g. with Dutch and Afrikaans, there is now a clear difference. When looking at Dutch and Flemish, you will notice that the difference is much smaller and mainly pronounciation and worduse.

    No matter how much (some) liguists would like to treat language as a fixed thing, it isn't.

    You can't determine speed and location at the same time and that is what they are trying to mdo.

  • by snsh ( 968808 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @08:18AM (#49266071)

    In technology you have an RFC published by a body whose authority supported by consensus. Then when you implement that technology, you can choose to be as compliant with RFC as you want. English teachers tend to see things as right vs. wrong, while in technology it's compliant vs. noncompliant, strict vs. loose/flexible. Loose compliance is often beneficial - how many people you know actually type the trailing dot on all of their FQDN's (e.g. http://slashdot.org./story)? The RFC says you're supposed to, but people rarely except when editing DNS records. Do we say that everyone is "wrong", or just noncompliant with RFC?

    I find the technology model far less judgmental.

  • by Krakadoom ( 1407635 ) on Monday March 16, 2015 @08:49AM (#49266219)
    I know this is how language scholars in my country think as well, but it's idiotic. This approach is what warps language and creates misunderstandings, when you can no longer determine from spelling or pronounciation the etymology of a word. Artists also shouldn't adopt misheard lyrics as the correct way to perform their songs. Although that might be slightly interesting.

    Picking the lowest common denominator is just plain sad when it comes to language.

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