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Expert Comment: Is there such a thing as 'correct' grammar?

dictionary_200_x_133 Wednesday 25 April 2012

Poet Michael Rosen, writing in the Guardian, has suggested that there is no such thing as 'correct' grammar. Dr Linda McLoughlin, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University, examines the issue.

There are many misconceptions concerning language, especially grammar. Not many people would find it easy to define what ‘Standard English’ is - they know it’s used in education and is ‘high status’, but beyond that it’s hard to pin down.  Standard English occupies a privileged position which causes non standard dialects, generally, to be stigmatised.

What often gets forgotten is that Standard English itself is just a dialect. When we talk about  dialects, we’re talking about groups of people. Standard English is based on the East Midland’s dialect – this dialect prevailed due to the power of its speakers, also the power invested in the institutions based in the region, the London, Cambridge, Oxford triangle.

Linguists disagree on many things but one aspect they all agree on is that non standard dialects have grammar. A leading linguist, William Labov (1967), showed how African-American pupils in US inner city schools were speaking in a way which was logical and well-formed, but that they were being disadvantaged by the educational system which did not recognise their non-standard dialect.

Language is a living phenomenon that will adapt to meet the needs of its users; what was Standard English twenty years ago isn’t Standard English today. From a linguist’s perspective we like to study non standard dialects because we can watch the language developing in real time.

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