Changing English

Proper English?

Time changes all things; there is no reason language should escape this universal law.

Ferdinand de Saussure, Swiss Linguist
Does Grammar Matter? This TedTalk lesson dives into the age-old argument between linguistic ‘prescriptivists’ and ‘descriptivists’ — two sides who have very different opinions on the answer to this question.

From the first time we step into an English class, we’re told that the rules matter, that they must be followed, that we must know when it’s appropriate to use a comma and what it means to employ the subjunctive mood. But do these things really matter? Outside of the classroom, what difference does it make if we write “who” instead of “whom” or say “good” instead of “well”? In this section we’ll find out that in the real world it does make a difference, at least sometimes. In order to determine when those times are we have to ask: for whom are we speaking or writing? We’ll also examine some ingrained attitudes towards various uses of language, and discuss the idea of the status of English. As always, widen your knowledge by reading a selection of the articles below. Begin with The Ever-Whirling Wheel to discover why people (sometimes) hold such strong attitudes towards the notion of ‘proper’ English, then choose one or two more for yourself. (I also recommend The Proper Way to Talk, from the book which accompanies the documentary series by Melvyn Bragg):


Class Activity: “So I was like, that’s so lame…”

Penny Eckert is a Stanford University researcher of sociolinguistics. She points out that adolescents lead other age groups in language change. (She also notices that, while both younger and older people coin new words and phrases, or repurpose old words for new uses, it’s normally only young people who get criticised for sloppy use of language, but that’s another story). She gives the example of the frequent use of the word ‘like’ among young people.

Investigate inter-generational language change by completing this mini-investigation. Choose 6 slang words that you use, or that you know other people in your year group or approximate age group use. Write down the words and what you mean when you use them (for example, you might use the word ‘sick’ to mean ‘cool’, or ‘lame’ to mean ‘uncool’). Present these slang words to the following people: a teacher, a parent, a grand-parent (or someone of equivalent age); someone three or more years younger than you. Discover – which people could define your slang words? What word would they use as an alternative (or would they use that slang too)? What is their opinion of the slang word, do they like hearing it or not?

Bring your results back to class and discuss your and other students’ findings. Do your results support Professor Eckert’s findings?

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Are you a descriptivist or prescriptivist? Do you agree entirely with one side or another?
  2. How important is audience to your use of English? Do you change the way you speak according to who is listening? Can you give examples?

Learner Portfolio

After reading about viewpoints held by those on both sides of this issue, why not stage a debate about this topic. One side of the debate should hold to the notion that there is a proper way to speak, and argue why it is important to use language correctly (the prescriptivist side); the other side should oppose this notion and present reasons why language should not be constrained by ideas of proper/improper (the descriptivist side).

After you have staged your debate, write up your side of the argument as a reflective journal entry for your Learner Portfolio.


Paper 1 Text Type Focus: diary entry

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are samples of diary entries. Diaries can function as records of events witnessed by individuals, and are always written from an individual point of view. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of diaries and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

KEy features of diaries
  • Viewpoint: as one of the most personal text types, diaries are written in the first person and always express thoughts and feelings.
  • Perspective: diaries are written to be private as the reader and writer are the same person. Confessional is a particular form of diary writing that reveals a secret.
  • Structure: diaries function as records of the day’s events and are largely chronological. Look out for flashbacks when the writer begins at the end, then goes back to explore how and why an event happened.
  • Register and tone: most diaries are written in an informal or semi-formal register, using language the writer feels comfortable with. Look out for language which reveals the attitude of the writer (tone): it is not uncommon for diaries to be thoughtful and reflective, scathing and caustic… or anything in between.
  • Colloquialism: the writer might write as if he or she is talking and may use figures of speech in an original or entertaining way.

Body of Work: Articles by Harry Ritchie

In this interview by Write 101, Harry Ritchie discusses his anti-establishment attitude towards speaking ‘proper’ English.

These articles by Harry Ritchie are about the politics of what we consider to be “good” or “proper” writing. He asks questions like: who decides what’s ‘correct’ grammar, and what’s not? Why shouldn’t we split infinitives – who made that rule up, and why? What grammar rules are connected to clarity, to ensuring that we all understand quickly and easily the point a writer is trying to make, and which grammar rules are arbitrary, or – even worse – motivated by social and racial snobbery?

These are the kinds of questions Ritchie is consistently interested in thinking about; he examines the politics behind the rules and regulations he details. As well as the articles reproduced here, you might like to listen to this podcast, produced by History Today, in which Harry explores the common ancestor-roots of all languages. All together, these materials constitute a Body of Work.


Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

An extract from one of these articles would make an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: The Acceptability of Non-Standard English
  • Rationale:

This is a contentious issue in many countries around the world (for example, Singapore, Great Britain and America) where there is a clash between standard and colloquial, dialectical uses of English. And it’s a generational issue too – many people get creative with their personal language use, but young people are more likely to be censured for ‘breaking the rules’ of spoken English.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: The Ways We Judge Others
  • Rationale:

Harry Ritchie writes about the false judgments we often make about other people based on the way they speak, or where they come from. He uses humour and dry wit to ridicule the conclusions we come to so quickly. But he makes a serious point about the way people are so quick to judge others, even when all they have is superficial evidence that is barely skin deep.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair Harry Ritchie’s articles with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

Possible literary pairings
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – you could explore a particularly strong attitude towards a non-standard variety of English as expressed by Higgins in Act 1.
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – Duffy’s poems are often voiced by people who are unafraid to use their own idioms, slang, colloquial phrases and so on. A poem such as Salome might make a very interesting companion to Harry Ritchie’s articles in this activity.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – transforming the language of a text from one language to another is a difficult proposition. The translator must choose whether to be accurate, even if the translation is awkward, or to change the original so that it reads comfortably in another language. How you respond when Border Town ‘reads’ awkwardly would make a very interesting discussion alongside Harry Ritchie’s opinions.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang – the same issues of translation could be applied to the study of this text, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, who won an award for her work. Nevertheless, her translation is not without controversy.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – when two teenagers are banished to labour with peasant farmers in a remote village in China, they think their lives are over. That is until they meet the daughter of the village tailor. Beautiful and courageous, Luo pursues her and makes her his girlfriend. But how much does he really ever know about her? And look how he judges her based on her rural upbringing and lack of education.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – in the second chapter of this novel, the magistrate tries to help a nomad girl who was the victim of torture. He installs her in his house and tries to help her. But he is frustrated by his inability to know her, and her refusal to talk about what happened at the hands of Colonel Joll.
  • The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami – in this short story collection, Murakami explores the idea that two people may never really know each other, even if they are as intimate as husband and wife, or mother and son.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

If you enjoyed this section of work, and found Harry Ritchie’s point of view interesting, you might consider writing your Higher Level essay about this Body of Work. The articles are witty, ironic, a little sarcastic – and present an interesting point of view about the way people are judged by the way they speak. You could use one of these questions as a starting point, or provide your own focus:

  • With what methods does Harry Ritchie attempt to engage readers and convince them about his point of view?
  • How is Harry Ritchie’s tone an important part of conveying his message in his articles and reviews?
  • How persuasive do you find the opinions and viewpoints presented in Harry Ritchie’s body of work?

Wider Reading and Research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s