Recently I watched a video of a debate in England hosted by intelligence² titled ‘Between You and I the English Language is going to the Dogs’.
The affirmative argued that, if rules continue to be disregarded, the English language will go to the dogs. The speakers conceded that rules change as language evolves, but maintained that we must first learn the rules before we can get away with breaking them. They were adamant that without a formal set of rules, we have no way of being sure that the meaning we are trying to communicate will be understood. Certainly, you must ‘learn the tools of the trade before you can become a Picasso of language.’
The negative argued that there is no inviolably ‘correct’ way of communicating in English, and that standard spelling, grammar and punctuation form an arbitrary set of rules. Irregular and dialectal use of language cannot be considered ‘wrong’ because orthography and grammar do not dictate the use of our language. We do. Otherwise why would we have different style guides from which to choose, and why would dictionaries list alternative spellings and uses? Language standards are set by the custom of general usage, not by an external body of rules. So really, ‘the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.’
The most interesting aspect of this debate was that, by the end of it, the two sides had agreed on a key point: that in some contexts, we flout linguistic conventions at our own risk. The affirmative declared victory, remarking that throughout the debate the negative had conformed to the rules of the English language even while labelling them arbitrary and fallible. After all, it must be agreed that in many situations, the conventions of standard English must be followed strictly.
There remains a ‘standard English’. And, in many ways, ‘advancement is codified in language’. Language is power. The minute you open your mouth, you are judged by what you say and how you say it. Being able to communicate effectively using mainstream English can help you get ahead: ‘if you wish to be treated as an educated person, you have to become an educated person in terms of using the language.’
Which raises the question: are the rules of the English language being taught (properly)?
Here are just a few examples I have collected of English being used and taught incorrectly in schools:
- Kids Matter is currently running an education program called ‘You can do it!’, focusing on developing young people’s social and academic confidence, persistence, organisation and emotional resilience. A primary school art teacher made posters emblazoned with the key words of the program, displaying on the classroom wall the words ‘persistance’, ‘resilliance’ and ‘getting allong’. A colleague pointed out the spelling mistakes, to which the art teacher replied, ‘That would be the last thing on my mind’.
- In a grade 6 class several decades ago, students were given a lesson on collective nouns. The teacher taught them that ‘a flock of sheep are crossing the road’. A parent who got wind of this was concerned that the teacher had missed the purpose of collective nouns, and raised the alarm. The teacher was instructed to present the lesson again, this time teaching students to pair collective nouns with singular verbs.
- In high school, I was amused at the excursion notice prepared by our food technology teacher, who repeatedly reminded us to ‘bring an “umberella”’ (this particular teacher liked to use quotation marks to highlight key words, whether misspelled or not).
- A teacher asked her students to write a story beginning with, ‘If I was a princess…’ An argument arose when a colleague pointed out that she ought to have used the subjunctive (the verb form used to express suggestions, wishes, uncertainties and possibilities). The teacher later reissued the assignment as ‘If I were a princess…’
Some may say ‘who cares?’ But these everyday incidents cause grave concern to those who value a high standard of communication. If we want our children to be respected and taken seriously, we must show them how language is crafted and how using it ‘properly’ is advantageous.
In the debate I watched, one speaker observed that ‘we seem to be reluctant to make people learn a language vigorously.’ The population is, perhaps, divided into those who are conscious of the rules and those who are not, into those who readily overlook errors and those who are distracted by breaches of traditional grammatical conventions. This is what it comes down to: if you, as a communicator, pitch below the standard of English (consciously or subconsciously) expected by your target audience, you are going to struggle to earn the respect of your audience.
If students are not taught to keep an eye out for and correct typographical errors, they are not taught attention to detail. A letter or other communication that is full of errors shows an inability to conform to a standard of practice. It is a display of shoddy workmanship that could put you out of consideration for a job. Worst of all, it could be interpreted as a lack of respect for the addressee. In an increasingly competitive world, this is significant.
Certainly, teaching children how to use the English language properly and effectively is the job of teachers of English (and English as a Second Language). But responsibility doesn’t stop there. If spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are not corrected by teachers right across the curriculum, and if others in a student’s life show a disregard for the rules of language, then one can readily understand why students go on to produce communications that fall below acceptable professional standards.
By popular vote, the affirmative won the motion that the English language is going to the dogs.
Are you for or against? Post your position!
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 385 (September–November 2014).