Changing English

Proper English?

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

Ferdinand de Saussure, Swiss Linguist
The Adventure of English is an eight-part BBC documentary written and presented by journalist Melvyn Bragg. In this, the sixth episode subtitled Speaking Proper, Melvin discusses attitudes towards non-standard English.

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

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).

Learner Portfolio

Write one-two pages about your findings from this section. For example: is there a ‘proper’ way to speak English? In what ways can people deviate from Standard English? What are some of the drivers behind negative attitudes to language deviation?

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: texts written in non-standard English

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze 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). While this is not a text type, occasionally you may be given a text written in non-standard English, for example a text written in a particular dialect or a text from another country where English is not the first language. Use the following resources to practice suitable responses to these kinds of text 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:


Body of Work: Articles by Harry Ritchie

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)

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.

An extract from one of these articles would make an ideal text to bring into your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Harry Ritchie.’ Your field of enquiry would probably be Culture, Identity and Community, and you could explore the Global Issue of ‘The Acceptability of Non-Standard English’. 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. You may have ideas about how to pair the articles with the literary texts you are studying. If not, don’t worry; speak to your teacher or use the following suggestions as a starting point: 

  • 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.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

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?

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