Speak good English!

There is a daft and irritating notion in Britain today, that there is no such thing as good English. Politically correct English teachers insist that all English is good, since it is a native language. To correct a child’s English is to say that the child’s way of speaking is less “valid” and to “disadvantage” the child by denting his confidence, and confining him to a social group below the ideal. These teachers argue that every way that a child may have of speaking is a dialect, and that to impose received pronunciation and grammar is an act of establishment tyranny. They insist that all people have a consistent grammar, and that they are able to express themselves in their own way.

I contend that these teachers are very wrong.

The same schoolchild who writes an English essay which, despite being riddled with fundamental errors, comes back to him with very few corrections, and “Good” written in red biro in the margin, will, next lesson in the same school, go to a German or French lesson in which every error he makes is pointed out. There is a double standard at work. There are, it seems, such things as bad German and incorrect French, but no such thing as bad or incorrect English. In a German lesson, we try to teach children to express themselves well and impressively in German. Broken incoherence in English is encouraged.

We go to an art class to learn how to draw better. We go to a dance class to learn how to dance better. We go to a football coach to learn to play better football, which is more likely to get us picked for the team. Despite all this, modern British society frowns on any attempt to teach or learn better English. One could argue that random splatterings of paint on canvass is a “valid” means of self expression. Indeed, artworks by chimpanzees have been sold for good prices to people who didn’t know the true identity of the artist. We are allowed to laugh at those foolish art buyers, but we are not allowed to laugh at bad English.

You don’t need to be an expert dancer to be able to tell a good dancer from a bad one. Similarly, one needn’t be an expert on language to recognise good English when it is spoken. A good speaker will be concise, expressive, clear, entertaining, unhesitating, and persuasive. A good speaker is more likely to pass a job interview.

Surely any teacher is doing a far greater disservice to a pupil by failing to equip him to pass job interviews, by failing to correct his bad English, than by denting his confidence for a day by this same correction. Not only is it very clearly the case that people who speak well have an advantage in life, but also I would add that people who speak badly are missing out on the fun that can be had with the English language, and the satisfaction which can be found in a well-formed sentence.

For a while, I marked essays written by first-year archaeology undergraduates. Some of these essays I covered in red ink, because the writers could not string a sentence together properly. The reaction I got to this was one of anger. The students were not angry with me, however. They were angry with their former English teachers who had failed to point out their weak English. If you went to a dance teacher to learn to waltz, and then when you got to a dance, found that he had taught you it wrongly, and that you couldn’t cut it on the social dance floor, would you not feel annoyed with your teacher? Perhaps you would merely conclude that your teacher was expressing himself in his own way, and that his version of waltz was as “valid” as the one danced by the rest of the world. You might, but I really doubt it.

Before you misunderstand me, I must write now that I have nothing against accents. The British Isles have a particularly rich and charming collection of accents, and this is a good thing. Any accent can be spoken well, or spoken badly. Similarly, I am not against quirks of dialect, especially in spoken English. They too can be charming, and as long as they are genuinely consistent and expressive, I see no harm in them. In Newcastle, where I live, it is common to hear someone say “tret” as the past participle of the verb “to treat”, as in the sentence “We was tret terrible.” Importantly, when the speaker said “tret”, he knew exactly what he meant.

The sentence “We was tret terrible” has three non-standard elements. Was should really be conjugated as “were”, and terrible is an adjective, whereas the speaker meant to describe a verb, and so might better have said, “terribly”. “We were treated terribly” is the standard English. “We was tret terrible” may or may not be good English. That it marks the speaker as other than middle or upper class is certain, and whether this is a good thing is a matter of opinion. Correcting the English of this person when he was young would have given him the option of sounding more educated. As it happens, most people talk in their own way regardless of education. Indeed, we find people who talk in falsely affected accents the objects of ridicule. I am not saying that everyone should talk as I do. That would be a duller world.

“We was tret terrible” could have been spoken by a charming man, with the gift of the gab, and the ability to convince, to persuade, to enliven, and to make himself liked. It is nevertheless well known and only denied by intellectuals that non-standard grammar is commonly and rightly associated with bad grammar, and with people of low intelligence and low employability.

So what is “bad” grammar? Bad grammar is, in my view, grammar which harms the ability of the speaker to express himself. A good speaker can express difficult concepts quickly and clearly. A bad speaker cannot. Some examples are necessary.

Some modern language scholars have started to argue that double negatives, used to express the negative are okay in English. Rot. They argue that in other languages, a double negative acts to intensify the negative. Yes, this is true, but not all languages are as good as English. We should conspire to make English as good a tool for expression as it can be. That I can use a double negative to express a positive is a useful tool. I might say, “Untrue - I never said that I gave him nothing. In fact I didn’t give him nothing. I gave him the key to the cupboard. What I said was that I didn’t give him the other key.” This sort of reasoning would be impossible to express by someone for whom “I didn’t give him nothing,” means the same as, “I gave him nothing.” Such a person would have difficulty understanding the logic when spoken by another. Therefore their English would be a less powerful tool, and therefore less good.

The word infer is a good one. It means the opposite of imply. Just as buy is to sell, or lend to borrow, or teach to learn, infer is to imply. It is a very useful word. You may say something quite straightforwardly and innocently, but I might infer from it my own meaning. Alternatively, you might deliberately imply a certain extra meaning in your words, and I might fail to draw any inference. Most people today have started to say “infer” when they mean “imply”. This has a few effects, all of them bad: the people themselves do not know what they are saying; there is greater ambiguity; the people speak less impressively and less beautifully; the tool that is the English language is rendered less powerful, since this common misuse threatens to kill the important distinction between two words. When two words which were once opposites come to mean the same thing, they are rendered meaningless.

“Lloyd,” people say to me, “English is a living language. You think that English should be frozen, stuck at some fixed point in time, never changing. You think that everyone should speak like you.” No I don’t. The reason that English is so fabulous a language, is that it has lived so very much. We lucky Brits have far more words than anyone else - about three times as many words as the next most wordy language. We have collected these words from all over the world, and made others up. We speak Australian (boomerang), Urdu and Hindi (pyjama), Eskimo (anorak), Greek (dilemma), Latin (manuscript), Dutch (manikin), Italian (novella), French (résumé), Hebrew (golem), German (schadenfreude), Yiddish (schmaltz), Danish (scoff), Chinese (chow), and have taken words from a hundred other languages. In Britain the language has accumulated thousands of useful little expressions. We can, for instance use the word “up” to modify many other words, and get “fry up” “cock up” “brew up” “slip up” and more. We can say, “Stiff upper, Old Boy,” and never need to speak the word “lip”.

It is in the nature of living things that they can die. When infer becomes meaningless, part of my living language will have died. We used to say “ye” to mean the singular, and “you” to mean the plural, but now “ye” has been dropped and we have lost this distinction. The randomness of change will doubtless kill off other bits of our language, but this does not mean that we should set up a selection process for death. The current belief seems to be that all change must be good and be embraced, no matter how much it disables the language. Languages evolve. If we create an environment which favours evolution towards the meaningless, dull, and inarticulate, then that is the way our language will go. If we all agree that nothing matters in English, and every stuttering utterance from a child is to be applauded, then future generations will have an English which is a shadow of its former self (a cliché, I know, but a good one).

Arrogantly or otherwise, I like to think that my written English is above the average. I receive a steady trickle of e-mails from people who have ended up visiting my web-site for one reason or another, and have ended up reading loads of it. I strongly suspect that had I written this site in halting and unclear English, few would have stayed to read much.

If you are interested enough, you may want to read about some particular examples of bad English by clicking here


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