Manuscript March: Is There Any Such Thing as Proper English?

Anyone who has ever received written work back from a teacher has had their writing “corrected.” That swipe of indecipherable red ink on the paper implies that you’ve written something wrong, which in turn implies that some other way to write it is right.

But who are the guardians of written English?

Proper English is colloquially referred to as the Queen’s English (or for those of us who are ironically too lazy to express ourselves in full when referring to correct expression: “the Queen’s.”) So is it the Queen who determines the best way to write in English? Has our dear Elizabeth II secretly spent her career slaving over every piece of writing to emerge from the Commonwealth, throwing unsealed inkwells at literary dissenters?

I doubt it. She has all those corgis to care for, after all.

I don’t blame you, Liz.

So who determines what is right and wrong in written English?*

The Oxford English Dictionary is usually considered the most authoritative compilation of “correct” words in the English language. Compiling the OED is no casual gig; there is an entire field called lexicography, which is devoted exclusively to dictionary compilation. When it comes to putting words together into “correct” sentences and paragraphs, linguists, literary scholars, and writers all influence the “rules” of the Queen’s. Every so often a book comes out which contains these rules – “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White (often referred to as just “Strunk & White”) has probably been the most influential over the past hundred years.

But you can never get experts to agree on anything, and Proper English is no exception. Ever heard of the Oxford Comma? It’s the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. (E.g. the one after “there” in “here, there, and everywhere.”) Scholars can’t agree on whether it’s necessary, and the debates have been fierce. Seriously. It’s ruined friendships.

You omitted the Oxford comma. Prepare to die.

But even assuming that there is a stable set of rules which make up Proper English, are they relevant? In our globalised, digitised society, a growing number of scholars, writers, and texting tweens would say they aren’t.

There are prescriptivitists who claim that there is one correct way of using the English language, and there are descriptivitists who claim that the English language works in whichever ways people write and speak. There are some who claim that Proper English, as defined by privileged British ruling classes, is an oppressive form of elitism which denies the linguistic identities of other races and classes. There are others who argue that shared rules are critical to mutual understanding, and that those who deny the value of Proper English are exhibiting a form of “inverted snobbery.”

Just days ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece arguing that Proper English is just a set of stylistic conventions which limits our potential for creative expression, and breaking the “rules” can be the best way to communicate in non-formal situations.

Of course, throwing these articles at a supervisor who circles the misplaced apostrophes on your writing could be a dangerous choice.

Red pen
Oh dear, it’s poised on red.

So where does this leave academic writers? Is there a “correct” way to write in academia?

Many researchers develop their own philosophy on Proper English, and its relevance to their  work. My personal philosophy is that the best way to write is the way that will be best understood and appreciated by the target audience. Usually, the rules of Proper English work very well for academic writers because they allow us to be understood by other academics, who have generally learned to read and write according to those same rules. Because the Queen’s is intended to allow the greatest possible precision in writing, it can also help us to convey complex arguments without losing clarity. And last but certainly not least, writing in Proper English still provides the best chance for publication in most circumstances. For those of us who aspire to become academics, following the rules at this early stage in our careers can help us get into the club.

But on the flipside, sticking to the rules of Proper English in a world which may not prioritise those rules could make our work less appealing to non-academic audiences. You could argue that relaxing the rules is part of the democratisation of research and education in general. A little intelligent rule-breaking can also be a breath of fresh air. Someone in my department once wrote an entire academic thesis in the form of poetry. It didn’t stick to the Queen’s, but it certainly invigorated debates about what counts as scholarship.

I think it comes down to the form and the audience. In a thesis directed at academics, you probably want to follow the rules of Proper English. But you can always share your research more widely, and then you can tailor your writing to your audience. In a blog or a presentation, it may make sense to selectively break the rules of Proper English to achieve a more conversational tone. (I don’t fully adhere to the Queen’s English when writing these ThesisLink posts, for instance.)

What do you think, fellow scholars? Do you like having a set of rules to write by, or do you long to break them?


*If you’re interested in learning how the rules of Proper English have been constructed, pick up a copy of Henry Hitchings’ “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English.”

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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