Good English = Effective English

2012-12-03 by . 1 comments

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Speech and the written language differ in many ways. Speech developed before writing and we learn to speak before we learn to write. For a long time there was no written language at all, and there are languages that have no written form. That is not to say we can say what we like and hope to be understood. Speech has its rules. In English, we must say, ‘Shut the door’ rather than, ‘Shut door the’ or ‘Shut of door’, and we must say ‘streets’ rather than ‘street, street’ when we mean more than one. Anyone who applies such rules consistently speaks correct English. The only people who don’t are those who have yet to learn them: infants and those who are learning English as a foreign language.

There are many varieties of spoken English and there is no reason to suppose that one variety is linguistically superior to any other. At the same time, we do well to use a spoken language that is tolerably close to that of the people with whom we expect to spend most of our lives. For the middle-class, that means adopting the dialect known as Standard English. It can be spoken in any accent, but is often associated with the accent of educated people living in London and the south-east of England. But it’s no more and no less correct than Midlands, Liverpool, Tyneside, Indian, Australian or Caribbean English.

Written language derives from speech, but we have to make a deliberate attempt to learn it. Some fail to do so, even when they speak their native language fluently. We have to encode our thoughts as arbitrary marks on paper or the screen and interpret similar marks produced by others. Like speech, different kinds of written language suit different circumstances. An email or text message in a variety of language that many of us would not understand is perfectly appropriate between people who do understand such language. The question of whether or not it is correct simply does not arise. However, such language in, say, a job application or a Times leader would be unacceptable, and consequently ineffective, if it was incomprehensible to its readers, or if it simply antagonized them. That seems to me a more important consideration than whether or not it conforms to someone’s idea of correctness.

Those who commit words to print should consider what they are trying to express, who their readers are, and whether the chosen language will succeed in conveying the message clearly without hesitation, repetition or deviation. And it is helpful if, in writing which is destined to be read by a large number of people whose linguistic backgrounds we cannot know, we agree on certain conventions. These conventions include punctuation, spelling, and choice of vocabulary and structures. In speech we generally know personally our audiences. In writing, too, we will sometimes know our readers and we can adapt our language accordingly. Quite often, we will not. In those cases, a certain commonality is required to avoid chaos.

When I read a sentence I ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Do I want to read any more of this stuff?’ ‘Getting it right’ means successfully using language to achieve the purpose intended, not necessarily complying with a set of rules. Achieving the purpose intended includes producing the response on the part of our readers thaty we want them to have. Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness seems to me more likely to produce the desired result. The alternative seems to suppose that once you have complied with the rules laid down by this or that authority you have done all you need to. That is far from the truth.

Filed under Linguistics

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  • Bill Franke says:

    Excellent essay. I couldn’t agree more and I couldn’t have said it better myself. I especially like the ideas of “Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness” and that what works in one context may be inappropriate in another. Too bad we can’t agree about the CGEL and Pullumosity.

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