Day 9

A hundred years ago, linguists knew exactly what was Correct English. Now they're not so sure. This is progress, of a sort.

Back then, correct English was whichever utterances followed a set of arbitrary rules, which may or may not have anything to do with the language as actually spoken. Now, correctness is defined in terms of "Appropriacy" or "Acceptability" - more or less "the way native speakers usually put things".

Or at least "the way the native speakers known to or specifically studied by the linguist usually put things".

Once, the notion of correctness was precise, if sometimes useless and absurd. Now the answer to the question "What is correct English" has become vaguer, because the question has become vaguer. "Correctness" is now a rather hazy notion.

Once, it was entirely rationalistic. Now it's entirely empirical.

So, how am I supposed to decide whether my students are speaking good English or not? In practice, I think the old division between Right and Wrong has been replaced by a threshold on a scale from "completely native" to "completely alien"

It's as though there is an imaginary hard core of language which is totally acceptable to all native speakers, and beyond that a very large nebulous region of increasing unacceptability, taking in the language of Finnigans Wake near its outer reaches, and perhaps some forms of aphasia at its edge, if indeed it has a defined edge.

The threshold between "good" and "bad" is differently placed by different teachers, and it can be movable and inconsistent. The important thing though is that there is a threshold.

The sentence "Mary looked at herself in the mirror" is within the core. The fictitious passive form "Herself was looked at in the mirror by Mary" is, I suggest, grammatically impeccable, but massively unlikely to be uttered by someone raised with sentences like the former, and thus far beyond the threshold.

"I like music very much" is okay, but it's not clear where "Very much I like music" should go.To some it would be obviously wrong, simply on the grounds that they could never imagine themselves saying it. To others it might just slip through because a small number of native speakers might (or do) spontaneously say it.

Now, I don't think there really is a hard cord of absolutely correct utterances, and I don't think a threshold can be meaningfully drawn. For me, there is no unimpeachable centre of the cloud, but I do think there is the cloud.

You might say a line has to be drawn somewhere. Actually, I think the moment you draw such a line, you are plunged into a neverending series of ad hoc rules and arbitrary exceptions, of a kind which is not qualitatively different from that of the grammarians of a hundred years ago.

Unfortunately, on my TEFL course and in my intended professional life, I have to behave as though the threshold model is not only meaningful but self evident and usable.

1 comment:

  1. ... And that brings us back to Chomsky's «colourless green ideas sleep furiously»!... (I've repeated this sentence so many times in my mind all these years that I actually find it a rather «normal» English sentence... Even its translation into Portuguese sounds like a verse of a «modern» poem...)
    As far as teaching is concerned, I am in favour of drawing a line between correct and uncorrect, especially if you're teaching foreigners. Teaching English to natives (as Portuguese to natives) requires a different approach because of all nuances every speaker as a native speaker knows.
    Confusing, huh? Guess so...