In the writing community, there’s obviously a lot of anxiety about being “correct”, and a lot of strident commentary on using “proper” English, including which faux-pas are unforgiveable, and what error might earn you a speedy unfollow or a tut-tut from a fellow writer at the very least.
I used to be 100% invested in the idea of “correct English”. Before I went to University I certainly corrected the kind of miscreants who might leave a preposition to the end of their sentence or who might say “me” when they meant “I” or – sin of sins – split their infinitives with gay abandon, no thought to the sanctity of this our native tongue.
But then when I went to Oxford, I studied the history of the English language, and I learned something that made me see things differently. A lot of things that we think of as “correct English” rules are actually the work of eighteenth-century lexicographers who (to oversimplify massively) wanted to ennoble the English tongue by making sure that it stuck as closely as possible to Latin language rules.
To this end, to give one example of one of these uptight ninnies making anachronistic “improvements”, John Dryden charged through Shakespeare getting rid of all of the “hanging prepositions”. Now, you and I know that a preposition is a very bad thing to end a sentence with (ho ho). So why aren’t we allowed to do it? Shakespeare did it. Medieval English writers did it. Well, it’s because these eighteenth-century fusspots looked at the etymology of the word preposition – pre + position – and decided that because prepositions preceded in Latin, they could not hang at the end of sentences in English.
Likewise, split infinitives. In Latin, and in Old English, because of the grammatical structure of the language infinitives were single words. But we’ve lost that – we don’t inflect our verbs by person or number anymore (except with verbs like go or be), and our infinitive is formed with the auxiliary ‘to’. But once again analogy with Latin added in a late rule which is now often referred to as one of the great tenets of the English language.
I’m not saying this makes it wrong, I’m just saying that we need to be aware of the state of flux our language has always been in before we dash about condemning the energy and variety of “text-speak” and rap lyrics. I’m not saying these should be taught in schools, but there’s an implicit snobbery that comes with condemning variety in favour of only the codified. Likewise, people who criticise Americanisms, often for being new-fangled. American English has changed a lot less than British English, because when we colonised, we clung harder to our native expressions and terms. American English has retained more seventeenth and eighteenth century language quirks than British English. And neither is “right” or “wrong”.
That said, there are some errors that really grate. My pet peeve is people saying “I” when it should be “me”. This is because it stops the sentence making any sense. e.g. “The trouble with him and I is…” take away “him and” and you’ve got nonsense: “The trouble with I is.” Argh!
But obviously as a writer, I care very much about everything that is printed in my novels being correct. And correct to printing-standards. That matters a lot to me. What doesn’t so much is blogging and tweeting – that’s not to say that I don’t care if I make typos (which I often do), just that it’s often nice to embrace the more casual contexts of language use, to be playful, to not worry so much about precision and perfection. English is beautiful and vibrant and changeful. It is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive language – that is to say, there is no great authority of English use, only the way it is used, and the people who use it. That’s what makes it so wonderful, I think.
But what about the rest of you? I’m aware that this is a controversial topic (!) and I’d love to hear what other people think.