August 27, 2013, by michaelgroves

What is “Proper” English?

It would seem obvious to say that in an International University such as Nottingham, students and staff should use correct or proper forms of English- and even students and staff who do not have English as their first language should strive towards speaking “better English”. The term “proper English” is often used as a badge of honour, and often as a target to aspire to- in fact I even heard the term “Queen’s English” used the other day to talk about what a particular Malaysian aspires to speak.


But the idea of “proper English” is in itself very hard to define- if we just take it is a rule based system of language. There is, for example, the distinction between much and many. Most speakers of English would see this as a very easy grammatical distinction to make- we use much for things we cannot count (stuff) and many for things we can count (things). So we would ask ” How many pencils?” but “How much space?”. However, such a distinction breaks down with the difference between less and fewer. According to the rule books- we should say less stuff and fewer things- but these days this distinction is blurring- and less seems to be taking over- I hear sentences like “Less people came than last time” extremely frequently, even on the old bastion of “proper” English- the BBC.
And when we think about some of the rules from the past, they seem archaic. At the start of the last century, it was seen as poor English to finish a sentence with a preposition. However, this is a rule few people pay attention to today. Imagine if someone showed you a photograph and said “When I was on holiday, this is a place I went to”, it would sound normal. On the other hand, if they said, “This is a place to which I went”, to my ears, it would sound pompous and off putting- it would feel like I was talking to who lived in the past.

So- language changes over time- but it also changes over space. Is the communication device in your pocket a cell phone, a mobile phone or a hand phone? The answer depends on where you come from. And this is not limited to certain words- it affects the whole system of communication. If I am sitting in café in London and a waiter asks me for me order, and I have previously placed my order with their colleague, I would say ““I’ve ordered”, yet in Malaysia- I would say “I already ordered” or even “Already order”. In linguistic terms, in British English I signal the completeness of the previous action with the present perfect tense, whereas in Malaysian English I signal it lexically. Is one better than the other?

In the next post, I will be looking more at the idea of “correct English” and another way to analyse it

Posted in CELECommunicationEnglishEnglishesLearning English