[Originally Broadcast on
Public Radio]

What IS Proper English?© DrWrite.Com 2005

If you went through the American school system you probably bought into the concept of proper English. What you didn't learn was that this whole idea of there being a proper way to speak and write didn't even exist before the late 18th century. That's when a bunch of guys got together and formulated a set of rules and then sold them to an unwitting public.

Foremost among this gang was a fellow named Lindley Murray, whom the Encyclopedia Brittanica calls "The Father of English Grammar." (The 'Who' and 'Whom' distinction, by the way, is just one of those rules) Between 1795 and 1804 Murray published three books: An English Grammar, An English Reader, and a Spelling Book. Murray was a Quaker minister and he wrote these books for use in the Quaker schools. But they were adopted through much of the American education system, setting in stone the set of rules most students would come to despise.

Those rules, you see, were essentially an adoption of the upper-class Englishman's method of speaking and writing. Very few people really spoke or wrote that way, but no matter; just as the English dictated table manners and etiquette to much of the world, they set the standard for how we should speak and write.

Fortunately, we're a bit more enlightened these days. We don't insist on 'proper English' anymore, but we do have some rules and they make a lot more sense. I'm talking about what we call 'Standard English.' And the logic for these rules is based on one objective: clear communication.

Humpty Dumpty told Alice "When I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean, neither more nor less."

"The question is," Alice then says, "whether you can make words mean so many different things!"

But Humpty Dumpty fell onto the right idea. We need to share one version of English, one we can all agree on. That way we don't need a translator to figure out the meaning. To that end, most newspapers, magazines, scientists, and professionals use Standard English and it does the job pretty well. It even allows for variations.

These non-standard versions and include regional dialects, slang, and the language of various sub-cultures like Hispanics, Blacks, and teenagers. As long as the speakers and writers of these non-standard versions are communicating with each other, within their particular region or culture, their version is no better or worse than Standard English. In fact, many of the successful members of these sub-cultures speak both the Standard English and the non-standard version of their group.

Nonetheless, we still have those snobs who insist that there's a Proper English and anyone who doesn't use it is ignorant or somehow less of a person than they are. But even the British came of age. To an editor who clumsily rearranged one of Winston Churchillís sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, Churchill wrote this in the margin: "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

So the only test of whether or not something is well-written is whether or not it works. If it's written to sell, the test is: were you sold? If it's written to inform: were you informed? If it's written to entertain: were you entertained? If the answer is YES, then it doesn't matter whether it follows "the rules" or uses "Proper English."