Why grammar is not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ 

​In the first of their fortnightly grammar agony aunt column, Grammar Bites, Mark Brenchley and Ian Cushing tackle the notion of grammar being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

News article image

Imagine an English lesson where students are studying The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. At the beginning of the novel, they read the following:  

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

Here, a student raises their hand, perhaps eager to note the apparent allusion to Bleak House, or even TS Eliot’s Unreal City. Instead, they say "Hold on. Moses Aloetta hop isn’t correct English. You shouldn’t write like that".

In a sense, they’re right, of course. Sevlon doesn’t use what might be called ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English here. Yet their comment still sounds the wrong note. After all, this is excellent prose, crafted with delicacy and purpose.

More to the point, the author's use of non-Standard English is critical to the novel and the integrity of its voices. To rewrite it in Standard English would be a loss; not a gain.

The 'right' kind of grammar

Given instances like this, we thought we'd use our first column to deal with a question we’re often asked: how to think and talk about Standard English (SE) in a way that’s both accurate and useful.

For us, this is best addressed by situating the notion of a ‘standard’ language within sociolinguistics; that is, understanding language as a social phenomenon that is used to get things done in social situations.

This is useful because it foregrounds the idea that:

  • language is a social phenomenon;
  • different speech communities use different varieties of language;
  • no variety is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ compared to other varieties;
  • the variety you choose to use is governed by context;
  • speakers make linguistic choices between repertoires, defined as set ways and styles of speaking for different contexts;
  • language choices are concerned with appropriateness, not correctness.

Given these principles, let’s formulate a working definition of SE that is appropriate for developing students’ knowledge about language.

Defining grammar

SE is but one variety of English, sitting alongside other varieties such as African American Vernacular English or Multi-Cultural London English. Each of these varieties is an entirely legitimate, equally grammatical set of socially meaningful forms. As such, there is nothing linguistic about SE that makes it superior to any non-standard variety.

Instead, what marks out SE as ‘special’ is the historical accident of it coming to be promoted as the national norm within England; and, hence, becoming the particular variety emphasised by the National Curriculum.

Like most ‘standard’ languages, SE is generally associated with formal contexts, and is usually seen as the ‘reference point’ against which other varieties are compared.

Hence, it’s SE that’s been adopted as the institutional norm - the form typically used in contexts such as the law, media and business. SE is also a written variety, and a written variety only. It can be spoken in any accent – Received Pronunciation, Geordie, Lancashire – whatever. 

Another misconception is that SE is incompatible with non-standard varieties: this is to conflate varieties of English with the persons speaking them. In reality, we all varyingly draw on standard and non-standard forms according to context. This is neither accident nor error: it’s simply how language works, and people are remarkably knowledgeable about which forms are appropriate to use in which contexts. 

For example, in an informal social situation, two people who know each other well are more likely to draw on non-standard repertoires than a formal situation between two people who don’t know each other well.

No bans, please

You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that we dismay of schools ‘blanket-banning’ non-standard forms. To do so is a form of language policing and misguided linguistic purism. It also contrasts with everything linguistics tells us about what it means to be a sophisticated language user.

Does this mean that students don’t need explicit knowledge of SE? No. Like it or not, the language we use has implications for how we’re judged. And because SE is considered to be both prestigious and the ‘educated’ form of a language, to not know SE is to be socially disadvantaged, put at the mercy of wider prejudices about non-standard forms. 

But – and here’s the crux – it’s vital people know why SE has these connotations and how false such prejudices are. This means students should not only learn about the grammatical structures of SE, but about the wider discourses surrounding it. 

Such an approach might rest on the following principles:

1. Don’t treat non-standard English as ungrammatical

All varieties of English are governed by their own set of fully grammatical norms. Treating them otherwise is not only false, it risks creating unnecessary antipathy and damaging your students’ linguistic confidence.

2. Focus on the appropriateness of SE

As but one of various different kinds of English, developing a student’s capacity for SE is about adding to their grammatical repertoire, not replacing it. This means your focus should always be on developing their awareness of where SE is appropriate, and giving them the chance to develop their capacity for SE within these contexts.

3. Treat SE critically

By this, we mean giving students the chance to appreciate and critique SE as part of a wider understanding of language. This is not only their right, it’s crucial to developing confident, knowledgeable users of English. More specifically, it means treating SE as part of a discussion space that asks such questions as:

(a)    Why do people make value judgements about the language choices others make?

(b)    Why do people view some varieties as ‘better’ than others?

(c)    Does anybody have the right to dictate how you use language?

To us, this teaches students about the crucial relationship between SE and language use – appreciating the sociolinguistic factors which we’ve highlighted. Most importantly, it moves us away from the problematic idea that SE is the ‘correct’ form of English; instead, developing a richer, more genuine, more valuable knowledge about language. 

The more of this teachers and students have at their disposal, the better.

Ian Cushing is a Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at University College London and a doctoral researcher in Applied Linguistics at Aston University. Mark Brenchley is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Writing at the University of Exeter. He works on the Growth in Grammar project, which is seeking to understand what grammatical development in student writing actually looks like. 

Grammar Bites is a fortnightly grammar column.  If there are any questions to answer or bits you want bitten, let us know on Twitter (@ian_cushing and @Growing_Grammar) or email (i.cushing@ucl.ac.uk and m.d.t.brenchley@exeter.ac.uk).  

Further reading

Crystal, D. (2004) The Stories of English. London: Penguin.

Drummond, R. & Clayton, D. (2018) Language Diversity & World Englishes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milroy, J. & Milroy, L. (2012) Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English. London: Routledge.

Stubbs, M. (1986) 'What is Standard English?' In Educational Linguistics (pp.83-97). Oxford: Blackwell.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Mark Brenchley & Ian Cushing

Latest stories