Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What! There's No "Proper English"?

Oliver Kamm, an editorial writer for The Times of London, touched a nerve when he wrote an essay that he—or the headline writer—titled, "There is no 'Proper English'." It appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 13 and when I checked three days later it had provoked 630 comments.

His argument is simple: "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 "rules" of grammar—never use a double negative, never split an infinitive, never end a sentence with preposition, never join two sentences with a comma, and more and more.—are not rules at all says Kamm. They are at best stylistic conventions. "If someone tells you that you 'can’t' write something, ask them why not. Rarely will they have an answer that makes grammatical sense; it is probably just a superstition that they have carried around with them for years"

Kamm agrees there are rules of grammar. Just listen to a parent correct a small child who says, "Me want cookie." That's not how native English speakers past a certain age ask for a cookie. Kamm's argument: If a double negative like "I can't get no satisfaction" is both understandable and in general use, it's correct. He also argues that native speakers can adjust their language for the situation. You don't use the same language in a formal report to the board of directors that you use in a letter to your child at camp.

Although Kamm's essay seems eminently sensible to me, not everyone thinks so. Among the critical comments:

"The explanation of the problem with the garbage peddled by Mr. Kamm is set forth in Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion."

"Mr Kamm is wrong and people who use Standard English are right. My 'pedantic' English teacher once told me, 'if your friends understand your non-Standard English, all that proves is your friends are stupid too'."

"Attitudes like those Mr. Kamm propounds will have disastrous consequences. In particular, the catastrophic disregard for the law, in general, that is now so prevalent even in common law countries."

"What bull s h i t. Remember Ebonics? If Obama said, 'I be mad at Repubicans,' would Mr. Kramm call that correct English usage?"

So although Kamm tried to emphasize what is in general use—not any use—(and "I be mad . . ." is not in general use although it may be some day), these people and dozens more insist there is a Proper English and they know what is it. Good luck to them.

The issue for fiction writers, it seems to me, is that by attempting to meet some pedantic standard of English grammar, they can squeeze all the life out of their prose. Worse, they write dialogue that sounds like a textbook. (I once had a copy editor who started changing my active verbs into passive; I had her fired.) I say ignore the pedants,  read the best writers you can find, and try to see what makes their English sparkle. Then go write.

1 comment:

  1. You, Mr. Kamm, are what is wrong with a good part of our society's learning today. No proper English?? That is probably the dumbest statement I have ever heard. You should be ashamed of yourself. Your saying "between you and I" rather than "between you and me," is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen in writing and goes against all proper teaching. Shame on you for your nonsense and your complete disregard for English grammar. You should never be allowed to write another book .

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