21 July 2012

I be writing

I received the following question in email the other day and figured I might use the opportunity to clarify a few points I failed to make in the original Bad Writing post.

My earlier post was mostly about language in fiction writing. This one clarifies how those points work from a broader perspective.

Since the incorrect use of words like there/their/they’re can still create effective writing (since I suppose readers interpret the meaning), should those words now become common practice in the English language? If people keep using the traditionally wrong version of the word, should English evolve to accept that? Should there/their/they’re all evolve to mean the same thing?

Bear in mind that this is all just my own opinion (and a foreigner’s at that), but the short answer, in my opinion, would be no.

The long answer is, well, quite a bit longer, if you’ll bear with me.

First of all, the student examples I specifically had in mind when writing my original blog post were actually in Icelandic. I’ve taught both in the UK and in Iceland and in both cases emphasised to students that they should worry more about communicating their idea than about grammar, but the specific examples I had in mind when I wrote that were in Icelandic.

Icelandic has a long, complex, history of archaic, complex, and inconsistent spelling that results from a decision made in the early twentieth century not to go with a more phonetic spelling system. Instead Iceland went with a spelling system based on complex rules invented by Danish academics. These rules have no basis in Old Norse, for example.

One of the controversies surrounding Halldór Laxnes, Iceland’s nobel laureate, was that he used the alternate, more phonetic, system of spelling instead of the legal system, which gave his writing added political and cultural connotations that can’t be translated. It also caused him to flunk every spelling test he took in junior college.

If you think spelling is an issue in English, it’s nothing compared to what you get in Icelandic. We’re saved by near universal literacy and a book-obsessed culture, but even then, people who’ve been reading and writing all their lives keep making mistakes. Spelling tests are used as filters to force students to flunk and leave in junior colleges that want to focus on higher performing students (like Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, Reykjavík Junior College, the gymnasium I went to as a teenager). Icelandic spelling is tough.

So the situation with the essays in the classes I was teaching – the specific ones I had in mind when I wrote those words – wasn’t the same as that of a teacher of English who gets essays full of misused apostrophes and confused theirs.

How you handle this should depend on what you are teaching. If you aren’t teaching English but are using essay-writing as a method to get students to think and communicate about the subject, obsessing about spelling and grammar can be counter-productive. Their writing can be effective for that context and still be full of errors. Language is contextual and adaptive and should not be judged on the basis of unbending universal rules.

When you’re teaching English, you are expected to try and make sure your students’ written English is good enough to get them a job. The art there is in teaching them standard English without making them feel stupid or ostracised for their own variations of English.


There is also a difference between what has developed as a language and what is born out of ignorance.

Failing to distinguish their, there, and they’re impoverishes the language because there is a very real difference between the three, even in the language of those who fail to distinguish the difference in writing. They aren’t deviating from Standard English because they are accurately reflecting their version of English as they use it. They are deviating because they are failing to reflect the language as they use it.

Compare that to the difference between ‘he be fighting’ and ‘he is fighting’ in African-American English, the former means that the fighting is done habitually, the latter being a single event (which might or might not be done habitually).

A kid who, in writing, accurately and properly uses ‘be’ in this sense risks being condemned for being stupid, ignorant, and incapable even though they are entirely correct in their use of African-American English.

There’s a difference between variations caused by a kid’s ignorance and a kid who accurately uses the language they’ve spoken their entire lives. Anybody who ignores that difference is either dismissing African-American English as broken English – that speakers use it out of ignorance – or they’re elevating ignorance to the level of a legitimate dialect or vernacular. Language is a creation of community and society. Variations that come from regular, long-term, cross-generational use within a community or region should not be put in the same category as an inability to distinguish three words which mean three completely different things even in spoken English.

Differences caused by haste and inattention shouldn’t be legitimised or accepted as something equal to a well established regional or social variation on English.


There are other problems with the teaching of Standard English that confuse the issue. The biggest being that many of the diktats of grammarians have nothing to do with Standard English, British or American. English teaching is full of rules that are made out of whole cloth and have no basis in Standard English as it has been practiced in print over the last few centuries.

Take, for example, the supposed that/which rules. If you look at the body of published English, ‘that’ is now used in print only in restrictive clauses (it didn’t use to, and it’s often used in non-restrictive clauses in spoken English) while ‘which’ is used in both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. The idea that ‘which’ should only be used in non-restrictive clauses is a modern day fabrication with no basis in the actual practice of Standard English, British or American.

Or, the ‘rule’ that you shouldn’t end a sentence or clause with a preposition which is something that even Fowler – otherwise solidly in the prescriptive school of language scholars – called a ‘cherished superstition’. It’s unsupported by usage in print and unanimously rejected by English usage scholars.

Or, grammarians that reject the use of they, their, and them as gender-neutral singular pronouns even though they’ve been used as such since the days of Chaucer.

Despite the constant repetition of these ‘rules’, grammarians haven’t managed to change common use, i.e. Standard English, by any measurable degree. Writers continue to use ‘which’ in restrictive clauses, end their sentences on prepositions, and use ‘their’ as a more elegant solution to gender-neutrality in text. Changing the language isn’t something that can easily be done by rules from above or the pronouncements of language hacks with delusions of grandeur. I’d expect that a declaration that the difference between there, they’re, and their should be erased would be roundly ignored by most users of the English language, both in speech and in print.

Standard English is what is commonly used in business and published English. If grammarians inventing pet rules can’t change it that easily then why should a few hastily written kids’ essays have a bigger impact?


A language isn’t a monolithic centralised system but a multitude of contextual and social variations. It is not a single-bodied animal but a temperamental beast with many bodies and many heads.

What we call Standard English is just one variation among many, the one that happens to be used in business, politics, and publishing. That gives it an added economic and political importance, much like the pre-eminence English had in the colonies of the British Empire, with some of the same unfortunate dynamics and connotations. Just because it is a vehicle for power, that doesn’t make it the only correct variation on English, or even the most interesting one.


Addendum:

Anybody who claims that Standard English – British, U.S., or Canadian – is the one, objectively correct, ideal of English is making an incredibly political statement. By taking this position, you are taking a side in the class and race struggle in Britain and in North America.

It’s the side of the rulers, the rich, the upper class, and the elites, so it’s a pretty safe side to take, no matter how badly history will judge you.

In fact, history will probably be kind on you, since the elites usually win.

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