The Place of Technical Correctness in Language Usage

     One of the inherent characteristics of a living language is its tendency to change words, spellings, and pronunciations from one generation to the next. One need only examine the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or even Dickens to appreciate the fundamental changes that have taken place in the English language over a period of time. Even within our own lifetimes, a surprising number of changes can occur. What was technically correct at one time is incorrect now, and our usage of the language now would have been unbearably wrong to people of another era.

     It is the recognition of this tendency to change that prompts some people to question the value of correct spelling and grammar today. If the purpose of spoken and written language is simply to communicate, they ask, then why does it matter how grammar is constructed, how words are spelled, or how sentences are spoken, as long as the communication is clearly understood? If language is going to change over time anyway, what is so wrong with helping it on its way by making some of our own changes now?

     To the lingual purist, such questions are anathema. Correct grammar and spelling are the hallmarks of the educated, and a person’s lack of sufficient education is shown no more clearly than by his or her inability to use language correctly. Academics consider language to be intrinsically beautiful, and they believe that it should be formed and expressed correctly for its own sake. It matters not that modern languages evolve over a period of time. In our own era, grammatical forms and correct spellings are clearly defined, and if we wish to be considered literate, the onus is upon ourselves to develop clarity of style and a correctness of form that can be accepted by educated people.

     Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two points of view. Certainly, more than one style of writing is recognized, and different rules can apply to each of them. We can speak of academic writing, creative writing, or writing for casual communication, and the expectations of each are quite different. No academic writer would use contractions in a formal paper, for example, yet contractions are quite appropriate and acceptable in creative writing or in newspaper accounts.

     But certain minimum expectations apply to any kind of writing. Dictionaries provide correct spellings that should be used, and basic grammar rules need to be followed. Whether any piece of prose is considered good or not depends in large measure on how the language is expressed and whether it falls within the limits of conventional correctness.

     Some radical changes in popular language usage came with the emergence of e-mail. Many people, especially the young, have developed a kind of shorthand when communicating through the internet and this has caused some headaches for teachers who are trying to encourage students to use correct language. The habit of using shorthand carries through to other kinds of writing. There is nothing wrong with shorthand, of course, but students simply need to understand that different styles demand different rules. When they have grasped this, the problem should solve itself.

     Correct usage of language is a desirable objective. Schools are there to ensure that students learn all aspects of correct expression in a variety of writing styles. Lingual purists need have no fear for academic styles of writing. These will not disappear, and despite casual and creative styles and sometimes sloppy ways of expressing the written word, there will always be a place for high academic standards in scholarly works.