When I tell people my degree is in English Language I’m often met with the same responses: they think I study literature (I don’t, except for a brief period as a joint honours student); they make a joke about how I speak English so well; or they comment that I must have amazingly correct spelling and grammar and be a ‘Grammar Nazi’.
The last response, while understandable, irks me and not just because of the term ‘Grammar Nazi’. No, studying English does not make me any more likely to be able to write better than any other degree which is essay heavy. No, I don’t care if you confuse ‘their’ with ‘there’ unless it means I cannot understand what you were trying to say. No, really, I’m not going to pedantically correct your spilt infinitive.
And most importantly, there is no such thing as ‘correct’ grammar. Standard grammar, yes, but ‘correct’ grammar, no.
An exchange in The Guardian last week touched on the use of the term ‘correct’ grammar as it seems the Secretary of State for Education Michael Grove, along with his many other faults, still equates standard grammar with ‘correct’ grammar. While he should know better, lots of people do this and I guess this stems from having writing marked either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ at school.
So I have to say it: there is absolutely nothing inherently ‘correct’ about a certain spelling, grammar, pronunciation, or whatever-aspect-of-language-you-care-to-think-about. It may be the standard language that’s in use at the moment, sure, but it doesn’t make it the ‘correct’ one. That really isn’t to say that I think being able to communicate in standard English isn’t important, it really is, it’s just that it shouldn’t be seen as the only ‘correct’ form. So much can be lost if the form of the utterance is focused on above the message it’s conveying, pupils can feel inhibited to express themselves in their own dialect is they are consistently told that it’s wrong, and if only the ‘correct’ forms were ever used language wouldn’t evolve as it does.
Throughout my degree we were told that we were there to describe how people use language not to prescribe how to use it. And while I can write and speak in standard English when it’s appropriate, I actually love studying language because of all the deviation and creativity you find in it.
There’s a part in the play (and film) The History Boys by Alan Bennett, where the English teacher, Hector, is explaining why his (impossibly verbose and knowledgeable) students are taught lines from Gracie Fields and Brief Encounter along with the required literature. He says it’s as an antidote so that they don’t grow up claiming to have ‘a deep love of literature’ and a ‘love of words’. While this is discussing literature I still adore the message of the importance of not putting some forms of language on a pedestal above others.