What is acceptable English?

Well, I missed US National Punctuation Day (September 24) but, as you can see from the title, this blog post is neither about punctuation nor about the differences between British and American punctuation styles.

I wanted, instead, to muse (briefly) about what ‘acceptable’ English is. Some people have argued that standard written English is the language of the elite and that it excludes everyone else; others, that it is the result of centuries of linguistic development and is an effective and efficient means of overcoming difficulties in communication between people of different dialects. Whatever the answer (and I don’t think there is an easy one), it does seem (thankfully) that we have a much less prescriptive view now of what is acceptable than we used to.

As a point of departure, let’s look at the Queen’s English. Defined in the Oxford online dictionary as ‘[t]he English language as written and spoken correctly by educated people in Britain’, it is often held up as the gold standard of English, particularly by non-native speakers. But the definition throws up at least a couple of questions:

  1. What does it mean to write and speak British English ‘correctly’? If it means to write and speak the Queen’s English, then we have an unhelpfully circuitous argument. And with reference to spoken English, we are not helped by the fact that HM Queen Elizabeth II’s has, over the years, changed the way in which she speaks.
  2. What is an ‘educated’ person? Traditionally, an ‘education’ was received at school and university by the privileged few. But, thankfully, we live in a time when primary and secondary education are compulsory for all children, and when a university education is open to ever-increasing numbers of people. There must, surely, be a great variety of spoken and written English among the seven and a half million (approximately) children in state-funded primary and secondary schools in the UK, and among the two and a quarter million (approximately) students registered at our higher education institutions. We are also moving towards a conception of ‘education’ that is wider and richer than the education received at school, university and other institutions of education.

Language is at its heart a tool for communication. I would argue, then, that English that is acceptable is, simply, English that is accepted by its audience. It is language that effectively communicates its message. To do this, it need only be as clear, cohesive, coherent and concise (see, for example, Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace) as its audience requires.

This means, thankfully, that our regional voices need no longer be locked up, to the extent that they have been, ‘…in a box beneath the bed, / the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution’ (from the wonderful West Midlands poet Liz Berry‘s ‘Homing’) and can, at last, be more fully savoured in all their richness.

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