D'ya get me? Does proper English matter?

Saturday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Hammerson Room, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

Like all languages, English is spoken in a variety of registers in different contexts – and as a global language with a wide range of influences, there are perhaps more varieties of English than of any other language. Nevertheless, there remains a dominant standard version of written English (albeit with national variations in the UK, US and elsewhere). And in formal contexts, from education to the professions, spoken English is expected to approximate that standard. But is such ‘proper’ English really any better than any other form, or is it just an elitist code, marking out those who enjoyed the ‘right’ education?

Of course, anyone who reads extensively or even watches serious television is exposed to correct grammar and syntax, so it’s hardly a secret. And in principle at least, all schools give their pupils a grounding in formal English. For some, good English education gives everyone an opportunity to engage in a variety of social contexts regardless of their particular background. But others object that it’s wrong to privilege ‘standard’ English over the way young people speak at home or in the playground. When one south London school posted a list of forbidden ‘slang’ words, it was even accused of racism, since many of the words were associated with ethnic patois or street vernaculars. Others insist that since language is always evolving – and since English in particular is a ‘mongrel tongue’ - we should be more relaxed about non-standard formulations and vocabulary, and less prescriptive about ‘correct’ English.

So is there something to be said for maintaining universal standards in formal English, even if we accept different standards apply in different circumstances? Or is the very idea that one version of English should take precedence over others needlessly authoritarian? Is ‘text speak’ holding young people back or spurring their creativity? Should schools insist all young people speak and write standard English, or recognise a diversity of vocabularies, grammars and even spellings?

Listen to the debate:

Valerie Coultas
senior lecturer, English in Education, School of Education, Kingston University

Nevile M Gwynne
author; private teacher, and adviser on teaching-methods to various schools in England

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
The glamour of grammar: an object lesson

Self-taught teacher Nevile Gwynne's grammar primer has garnered a cult following, and is about to go mainstream with a new, expanded version. Elizabeth Grice meets him.

Elizabeth Grice, Telegraph, 13 April 2013

Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice

In the wake of the riots, last Thursday evening, there was only one topic of conversation among the young people I mentor in Peckham.

Lindsay Johns, Evening Standard, 16 August 2011

English for the Few or English for the Many?

There is nothing very new in Michael Gove’s culturally elitist attitudes to English teaching and the comprehensive ideal. He joins a long line of those who have always been opposed to the basic principles of comprehensive education and democratic ideas about language and learning.

Valerie Coultas,

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.