The Correct Language Myth
by Elizabeth Winder
picture of Elizabeth Winder will be found by clicking here]
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.
day centre work included producing a monthly newsletter for internal circulation
and networking with similar
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.
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.
can't write' had multiple meanings which included:
don't have any experience/knowledge which anyone else would find interesting
I had such knowledge/experience, I could not describe it or structure the
content in a way that would interest others
dislike putting words on paper because I may expose my ignorance by missing
important facts or getting them wrong
sometimes use phrasing or spelling I think is correct, which other people
can't do word processing
didn't learn to read or write at school
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
also established, from our combined knowledge and personal experience, that:
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.
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.
spelling represents many sounds which have now disappeared but are still
written. All someone new to writing the language can do is learn it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.