What is improper English?

12th March 2019

What is improper English?

As copywriters, we have fixed grammar rules that we follow. It makes sense, right? We need rules in order to communicate in the right way, in proper English and in a way that standardises and makes sense of the language. But the thing is, English was never really a standardised language, if it was we’d be speaking something very similar to Dutch and Frisian today (the Jutes, Angles and Saxon tribes’ closest neighbours both physically and linguistically). Frisian is English’s closest relative, so much so that if someone were to speak Old English to a Frisian today they would be able to understand each other. But today the similarities seem very limited, with the old rhyme “Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Fries” one of the only examples of how close the two languages once were.

Not only has English been influenced by local Celtic languages and Viking and Norman invasions, but time and distance from the mainland has changed the language beyond recognition. Vowel shifts, consonant shifts, loss of grammatical gender, double negatives and inflectional endings, the changing sentence structure, regional dialects and word evolution all happened within English, largely without the help of any invaders. Long story short, English has never been a fixed language. Even words that seem right are technically wrong and words that seem wrong are technically right. Asparagus was ‘sparrow’s grass’, an orange was ‘a norange’, using double negatives was the standard and ain’t was the correct contraction of ‘am not’ until people decided it wasn’t.

Even today English is constantly changing. And while grammar purists will label any changes as wrong, from when do we start the definition of what is correct English? Is it from the first English grammar books written in the 1500s or the first Anglo-Saxon languages from before the tribes had even crossed the English Channel? Because the language has definitely changed a lot since both. The English spoken in the 1500s is a form of ‘Modern English’, but no one actually speaks like Shakespeare today. So, who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? English, German (all 250 dialects of it), Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic started out as dialects of the Proto Germanic language, but they’re now distinct languages in their own rights. Changes are a natural part of language, sound shifts happen, other languages and cultures influence it and words change their structure and meaning – it’s natural.

We’re not saying that grammar rules should be thrown out the window and the apostrophe should be misused or that spelling doesn’t matter because it does, and we take our jobs very seriously (seriously, we do). But we should be allowing the language to change with the times, embrace new words and different dialects. Grammar was invented to help readers understand how something is being said, to give writing tone and structure. Same with standardised spelling, it’s here to make things easier. But is getting so hung up on grammar ignoring the fluid history of language? Because it’s still evolving. Slang, dialects and even new words being added to the dictionary are legitimate forms of communication. And we should treat pidgin languages, African American slang, Australian Indigenous slang and dialects in the north and west of England the same as ‘standard’ English. Because at the end of the day, all words are just made up anyway. After all, there were once four dialects of English within England, today’s ancestor just happened to be the one spoken around London. So, when people use slang we probably shouldn’t judge it too harshly, because even the words ‘cool’ and ‘car’ used to be slang words too.