Bad English?

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Robert Lowth, Bishop of London

Do you use prepositions to end a sentence with? Do you believe it is wrong to ever split your infinitives? And do you start your sentences with conjunctions?

You are not alone.

When people find out I’m a linguist they often become extra careful around me. They believe linguists are strict guardians and arbiters of language. They think I’m a “grammar Nazi” or a member of the “grammar police” who will pick apart everything they say. But don’t worry. A linguist is your friend. We don’t judge. Linguists describe language, we don’t prescribe language.

We might say that particular ways of speaking and writing are standard versus non-standard, or formal versus informal, but we will never tell you that certain grammar is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’, ‘proper’ or ‘corrupt’, or ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

However, many people still believe that there is ‘good English’ versus ‘bad English’. Some see themselves as rational and logical people who want to protect, regulate, and refine language, but they don’t realize that language is a living, evolving thing and there is no correct, true, or pure way of communicating – you just need to be understood.

Some people might not like to hear that, and therein lies my point. What’s known as “good grammar” is merely preference. Telling people how to speak is called prescriptivism, whereas linguists practice descriptivism, in which language ‘rules’ are derived from the users of the language, rather than rules being forced on them.

Telling people how to speak is not scientific. It is prejudice. it is bias. it is snobbery.

As linguists Kate Burridge and Jean Mulder (English in Australia and New Zealand) explain, attempts to form a “correct” English seemed to arise because English was overshadowed by the classical languages, such as Latin. In contrast, English seemed wild and untamed, although Latin was a written language that lacked the fluidity of a living language. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that English finally ousted Latin as the language of learned and technical writing.

Writers were worried that English was slipping into decline (a fear that’s still around today!) and that their works wouldn’t be understood by future generations, and so grammar guidelines began to appear.

Many notions of ‘good English grammar’ date back to the book A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) by Robert Lowth. We have him to thank for the modern abhorrence of double negatives, ending sentences with prepositions, and other supposed sins. However, he was imposing his norm on users. His rules were just preferences and his grammatical leanings were influenced by Latin. (Remember that English is a Germanic language, not an Italic language.) Ironically, Lowth’s own writings often fell short of the strict laws promoted in his book of grammar. I see this hypocrisy all the time with the Grammar Nazis too.

Lowth’s book was remarkably influential, probably because he was the Bishop of London. As Jean Aitchison (Language Change: Progress or Decay) suggests, perhaps people believed his insights were divinely inspired.

Lowth’s book was one of several regulating handbooks of the time that advised how language should and should not be used. Similarly, Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first English dictionary, was intended to rid English of “licentious idioms” and “colloquial barbarisms”. Obviously, it didn’t. In his day, Jonathan Swift was as well known for Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712) as he was for Gulliver’s Travels.

But it was Lowth’s book of grammatical dogma that was adapted for use in schools and remained in usage in educational institutions until the early 20th Century.

So, the next time you try to ‘correct’ someone’s grammar, realize that you are possibly perpetuating the pompous prejudices of an 18th Century Bishop.

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

5 Comments on "Bad English?"

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  1. Why I’m Not A Grammar Nazi : Karen Stollznow | September 28, 2017
  1. Jeff says:

    I used to be a proponent of “good grammar”, but then I read books by linguists. One book even remarked that English speakers have been lamenting that the English language is going to Hades in a hand basket as long as there have been hand baskets. So it’s either a really slow ride, or English will be just fine.

    I recommend “Word Myths: Debunking Linquistic Urban Legends” (David Winton), “The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language” (Mark Forsyth), “Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang” (Tom Dalzell), and “Let’s Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America’s Favorite Expressions” (Rosemarie Ostler).

  2. adam says:

    I try to use good grammar, but am not terribly bothered by it–ending some sentences with a preposition is WAY less awkward than any other construct.

    I am, however, a “spelling nazi”, particularly bothered by misuse of homonyms (“homophones” nowadays?). I suppose a similar argument applies to my hang-ups too…

    • I agree with you about homonyms, and that’s different to grammar. Incorrect spelling and poor punctuation can affect meaning, as evidenced by the “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” joke!

      Homonym is the name for both homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings, like pair and pear) and homographs (words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings, e.g., bass fish versus bass guitar).

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