Opinion: ‘Good English’ is a fallacy

Bobbie Szabo

Bobbie Szabo

I used to enjoy correcting peoples’ grammar. Doing so made me feel as though I was intellectually superior, as though I was somehow better than the individual I was correcting.

Of course, I was — not and still am not — perfect. I, too, made grammatical and syntactical mistakes, but I felt my excellent command of the English language meant I was an overall smarter and better human being than those around me.

The preceding statements are difficult to admit, for I never consciously corrected people because I wanted to be superior. I truly believed I was helping the individual in concern. Most individuals who correct others believe similar notions; however, intent and impact are not the same.

Typically, a wealth of knowledge regarding the (admittedly random) rules of the English language is a signal of advanced education. Because students in the United States do not explicitly learn grammatical rules in school and instead implicitly absorb them by example, individuals who are able to articulate the rules of English grammar are those who have specifically pursued such education.

Higher education is outrageously expensive in the United States. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree is a privilege (although it should not be). Those who have the privilege of education are mostly likely to speak the English language based on “the rules,” but the rules were created by groups of people with wealth, power and influence. An educated individual correcting a seemingly uneducated individual thus becomes a situation in which the educated individual exerts systemic power over the other.

Situations do exist in which correcting an individual’s grammar is necessary — such as on an academic paper or in professional writing — but colloquial conversations are not one of those situations.

For instance, I recently had an interaction with an older individual. When I used “they” to describe a singular person, he interrupted me mid-sentence: “They refers to plural people. You cannot use it in a singular context.”

He was wrong. The rules languages follow constantly change and evolve, and this particular rule has essentially been eradicated due to its popularity in casual speech and its use in new sociological and psychological studies. Regardless of his accuracy, his behavior was rude — just as mine has been whilst correcting others.

By attempting to correct me, he placed himself in a higher position of power within our conversation. He exerted unnecessary linguistic force in order to construct himself as having the upper-hand.

When I gave him a disgruntled look, he defended himself by saying, “I am helping you speak good English.”

While such an intent sounds noble, the entire concept of “good English” is a fallacy; “good English” does not exist. Thousands of forms of English exist within the modern world — distinctly separate English languages, dialects, variations, colonialized forms, institutionalized variants — the list goes on.

None of these languages can be labeled “good English,” thus no one can speak “good English.”

One can speak a specific variation of English proficiently based on the specific set of syntactical and grammatical rules which accompany the institutionalization of the language, but no one can accurately label an individual’s use of a language using moral or ethical adjectives.

Bobbie Szabo is a columnist, contact her at [email protected].