The Correct Language Myth

by Elizabeth Winder

[Biodata and picture of Elizabeth Winder will be found by clicking here]


Working in a mental health day centre, I was surrounded by people of all ages from all backgrounds with a wide range of skills. They came together to recover from mental health difficulties. Many had gone through life events, such as loss of family members, employment, and health, which meant they needed to build new existence for themselves. By running the day centre together they were regaining their confidence in their ability to perform old skills, and learning new ones.  

The day centre work included producing a monthly newsletter for internal circulation and networking with similar projects. In addition to this community building function, the newsletter could also raise our profile with mental health professionals, funders, and local employers. By producing a high quality newsletter we could challenge the stereotyping and social exclusion which people who use mental health services frequently meet. Some people threw themselves enthusiastically into this task, finding an outlet for their creative writing despite their own doubts about its quality. 

When I encouraged others to make contributions to the newsletter I discovered that many of them 'could not write'. Considering their other competencies and experience, this seemed unlikely to be true. Although further enquiries were clearly unwelcome I tried to discover what they meant. 

'I can't write' had multiple meanings which included:

    I don't have any experience/knowledge which anyone else would find interesting

     If I had such knowledge/experience, I could not describe it or structure the content in a way that would interest others

      I dislike putting words on paper because I may expose my ignorance by missing important facts or getting them wrong

    I sometimes use phrasing or spelling I think is correct, which other people consider ignorant

    I can't do word processing

    I didn't learn to read or write at school 

For some people, several of these statements were true. Only rarely did 'I can't write' conceal a choice not to share experience, or physical difficulties which made the act of writing impossible. Most people readily agreed that their reluctance dated back to their school experience, sometimes thirty or forty years ago, when they were judged on the language they used, and the competence with which they put it on paper. Even though most of them wrote letters when necessary, they had never written with enjoyment, and put pen to paper as little as possible. The inhibition did not extend to their speech, and all of them knew they did not make grammatical mistakes or use the wrong words when speaking. The presence of an interested listener meant that they knew what they said was interesting.  

I was not happy. The ability to write 'correctly' was hugely overvalued, way beyond other skills within the community. I was perceived as being able to do this complicated task, and regarded as an authority on how other people should do it. This status, if I accepted it, would separate me sharply from some of my clients and reduce the effectiveness of my work. At the same time, since I was the only person in the day centre who had studied linguistics, I was undoubtedly their language expert.   

I was also angry. I, and the other enthusiastic writers, gained so much pleasure from writing that I felt people who could not do so for the reasons they had given had been short-changed in some way. With such strong inner critics, the choice not to write was not a free one.   

Language is a man-made phenomenon, and has no independent existence outside the people who speak, write, hear or read it. As with other man-made tools, it is developed by the people who use it to fit their current purposes and shaped by their perceptions of the world. It provides enormous scope for power politics; socially acceptable forms are those used by people with the highest status and the most political power. However the prime function of this man-made tool is to facilitate co-operation. 

Co-operating by means of sound waves is part of our social organisation. In this way a person may react to a stimulus he has not received personally, but which has been reported by someone who has. The advantage of language within groups of people who speak to each other is the opportunity to make use of the skills and strengths of others in the group. By individuals developing special skills (eg. fishing, dressing animal skins, or operating computers), the range of resources available to the whole group is increased. 

By recording language, reports can reach people separated from the reporter by time and geographical distance, thus broadening the group of people able to respond to the stimulus. As the forms and sounds of language change over time and distance, language communications may be unintelligible to the person who receives them. Missing cultural knowledge may also impair our understanding, as can happen with ancient texts translated into present-day language forms.  

The majority of languages in Europe and some in Asia had developed independently from a common language spoken around five thousand years ago; changes had arisen as populations grew and moved apart, although later contacts led to cross-fertilisation. Far from having a perfect logical structure, they just grew like Topsy.  

When language was first studied, scholars believed that some forms of speech represented a corruption or decay from 'correct' forms of language.  Current 'correct' forms were those in use among upper classes and people in political power; however some older languages, such as classical Latin, classical Greek, and Sanskrit achieved an idealised status from important texts, including religious writings, which first appeared in these languages. Eighteenth century scholars applied the rules of classical Latin, which they incorrectly supposed was the ancestor of English, to current English grammar and spelling to identify 'correct' forms. In the process they invented many 'correct' forms which had never existed, and helped to move 'correct' written English away from spoken forms. The 'It is I'/'It is me' controversy is an example.  

The reactions I met in the day centre indicated that the pure and correct language myth had undermined these people as schoolchildren to the extent that they limited what they wrote years later. Whether people contributed to the newsletter or not, I was determined to challenge some underlying assumptions in an attempt to change the culture. The strongest assumption was that language is logical; not being able to apply the logic correctly displays a lack of intelligence.      

I asked the people putting forward this view what they would do if a small child in their family, learning to talk, came up with 'seed' for saw and 'comed' for 'came'. Correct them, of course! was the answer. I pointed out the child, young as it was, was applying logic to the language, representing the past by adding 'ed' as in look/looked, and return/returned. Why did they consider the non-logical form to be correct? We then recognised that we shared an inclination to value tradition and social acceptability more than logic, and our children as a consequence had to learn the forms we considered correct.       

We also established, from our combined knowledge and personal experience, that:

      The way people speak English is different. Although what one person's speech might be considered incorrect by another person, nevertheless they are using their own speech correctly and consistently. The person who says "I ain't done nothing" and "I ain't been nowhere" would also say "I ain't seen no-one" rather than 'I ain't seen anyone'. Standard English is the form recognised as providing a means of communication for English speakers who do not share the same local form.  

      Writing is not language, merely a means of recording language. There are many different systems for representing the spoken word; conventions are born when there is widespread agreement to use one system. 

     English spelling represents many sounds which have now disappeared but are still written. All someone new to writing the language can do is learn it.  

The work of our most enthusiastic writers reinforced this. One wrote lyrical descriptive pieces about his wartime childhood with unfamiliar dialect words and quoted dialect speech. We struggled to come up with phonetic spelling; it was obvious that translating his pieces into Standard English would destroy them.  One of the poets made use of layout on the page, capitilisation, and deliberate misspelling, so that her work contained a visual element which would be lost with standard written conventions.   

The day centre members agreed some principles about performing written tasks. The purpose was to communicate information, and we would only question words and phrasing if the information was unclear or ambiguous. For internal documents which would never be seen outside the project, like the community meeting minutes, spelling would only be corrected if the meaning was obscured. Correct spelling was essential in external documents such as correspondence and the newsletter, so these were checked carefully by a second person, using a dictionary whenever a spelling was in doubt. Facts in minutes, news items and interview reports would be reviewed and corrected; when people submitted creative writing for the newsletter, no phrasing would be changed.   

The task of writing was broken down. Selecting and structuring content, phrasing it well and recording it correctly in writing are three separate tasks, not one. Stopping to puzzle over spelling while trying to get content and phrases together interrupts the flow of ideas, makes the task more difficult, and may affect the quality of the finished piece. Even when the flow is not interrupted, it is easy to miss something out. Although many of the members were unfamiliar with computers, once they appreciated the ease with which a word-processed piece could be altered, they enthusiastically reviewed their work.  

People often worked in pairs or groups on the separate tasks, involving different people at each stage. The person who put together the ideas did not have to phrase the whole article, or put the words on paper. Word processing was done by those interested in increasing their computer skills. 

Often one person acted as scribe when a large group worked on the content, for example when we invited workers from other projects to be interviewed. Sometimes we interviewed as many members as possible for a feature, writing down their exact words if they did not wish to contribute in writing. In this way we collected people's cycling anecdotes, New Year resolutions, and Which tattoo and Where? The most original answer - On anyone else but me! We found that experiences and thoughts we took for granted were new, fresh, and interesting to others, and contributing to the newsletter did not mean picking up a pen.   

For some, seeing their own words in print acted as a strong encouragement to continue writing, and to extend their skills, including acquiring the literacy skills missed the first time round. The monthly newsletter was packed with articles and poems, and some of our writers published their work elsewhere. What had been considered an esoteric and difficult skill became a pleasant pastime. Those who joined in less frequently had other interests and priorities. 

It is a strange experience to be handed a perfect poem, way beyond my own ability to write, and to be asked to correct the grammar, as if there were something wrong with it! Such a strange feeling, to be given such powerful creations and invited to destroy them!  I'm glad it doesn't happen any more.    

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Elizabeth Winder.  While training as an integrative psychotherapist, Elizabeth helped to set up a user-led mental health day service and provided counselling within prison as a Probation Service volunteer.  She now runs an independent  service providing advocacy to psychiatric in-patients.  She is a survivor of the mental health services.  Email: