Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Love Good English

I have a Facebook page that I administer. I did not create it, but I was asked by the creator to administer it. It's called English Idioms. It has twenty four thousand "fans" on it. Comments are not moderated, but most are about learning, well, English idioms: idiomatic phrases like "A White Elephant" and "Putting Food On The Table."

I am not paid for this in any way. All of my efforts on this Facebook page are absolutely free. Somehow, this is not good enough for some people... not English learners, but people who want to draw fans on my page to their own pages.

Today, one of the owners of a rival page with some five hundred "fans" insulted my page again, in public, stating that no one needs "correct" English and my page was "really going to the dogs." (He also wrote many words in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, but that is another story.)

Let me address an issue here.

Correct English is English that is technically correct in the sense of grammar.

First, speaking about "correct English" makes it sound like there is only one version of English that is correct. This is false. English is a mix of two styles of writing: one German, one Latin. The Latin version is reflected in standard French. This means, English will almost always have two ways of writing something that is correct; both ways have the same meaning. Sometimes there are three or four ways. All are "correct."

To teach correct English would be to teach people to use English that is grammatically correct, even when it sounds bad.

That is emphatically not what I do.

I teach good English.

The English I teach sounds good. It reflects my experience as a professional writer and native English speaker. Usually, in fact, almost always, the good English I push is "correct," but I will never criticize a learner for using English that is "incorrect" but which sounds natural. After all, native speakers do this all the time.

The point is, when there are several ways to write correctly, but only one way sounds good, I always teach the way that sounds good. That is teaching good English.

This person used the word "correct," but what he was really implying is that no one needs to learn good English.

To this, I say: you are wrong.

Good English is the difference between sounding like a fluent, but uneducated and rude person, and sounding like a fluent, educated person worthy of respect in a civilized society. Unfortunately, I do not think this individual can appreciate the difference. Certainly his actions show no regard for the difference.


Separately, but within the same time frame, the administrator of a page called "I Hate Bad English" made a post on English Idioms that truly disturbed me.

The post read, "Do you know the difference between 'Where is he from?' and 'Where does he come from?' He linked to his own page to suggest people find the answer there, but bear with me.

There is no difference.

The meaning of 'Where is he from?' and 'Where does he come from?' is absolutely, 100% identical.

Both are correct in English.

To imply, falsely, that there is a difference between the two, is wrong. It is, frankly, downright cruel.

It is suggesting that there is an important difference between five plus four, and two plus seven. There is not. Both are equal to nine.

This is what is known in English as 'a distinction without a difference.'

Here's my problem with this: even a non-native English speaker who knows the correct answer, will doubt that answer when he sees a native speaker imply that there is a difference after all.

The non-native thinks, is there something wrong what I know? Do I not know enough? Did I go wrong somewhere? Is there a difference that I didn't know about? What's wrong with me?

To make someone who knows, correctly, that there is no difference, think these thoughts, is cruel.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of legitimate English issues that this man could have addressed, but instead, he chose to use a trick question.

By the way, this man denied it was a trick question. He said, "I just wanted to make people think about the language." Sir, that is exactly what trick questions do. They make people think about something that they should not have to think about, because they already know the correct answer.

Incidentally, his own page says both are correct and mean the same thing. I looked so that you don't have to.

In fact, the only distinction between the two is a matter of style.

Style, you ask? What do I mean, style?

I mean, even if two ways to write something are exactly the same, a writer could choose one over the other for reasons of style alone.

After all, 'Where is he from?' is a sentence with four syllables and four words. 'Where does he come from?' has five syllables and five words. It takes longer to say. It puts stress on the sentence. It makes the sentence sound slightly more important.

Understanding the difference in style lets a person choose which version is appropriate for a situation. It is not a matter of correct English; it is a matter of good English.

Most importantly, it is a matter of choice. In English, we always have choices. In English, we have a strange freedom; we can express the same thing in many different ways, using many different styles.

Good English is simply using the language as a tool to convey to others what we really think and feel in our hearts.

That is all.

That is why I love good English, and why I seek to help others learn good English, so that they may enjoy this language like I do every day.

Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe that you have such a bee in your bonnet over such a trivial matter. Are you REAL?


    All the best!