Some Remarks on ‘Correctness’

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This morning we discussed my verb structure circle system (see under pages) in one of my classes. It was, again, as I found, a very interesting discussion. There seems to be one point of misunderstanding, though, when I question the validity of right or wrong claims: my position is not ‘anything goes’ and ‘rules don’t matter’. Language is a highly regular system, especially in what we call its grammar (e.g. syntax and phrase structures), otherwise it would not work efficiently. It is also highly flexible, alive and prone to change (though syntactic changes are slow or rare in comparison to semantic ones: new words get added or created every day).

And there is variety, regional, social, dialectal variety. Many people, non-linguists especially, often treat a variety as: ‘that’s not correct English (German, French etc.)’.

It is important to differentiate between true incorrectness in that a form might be wrongly constructed (e.g. I don’t going), a verb structure wrongly used (e.g. ‘simple present’ instead of ‘simple past’) or a word incorrectly applied (though there is a lot of possible creativity here), and claims of ‘wrong’ that are really just preferences of one form over the other. In the latter case, some people prefer one variety (often what they learned in school) over the other, deeming any deviation from what they consider correct (or struggled to learn in school) as wrong.

Too much rigidity of a language system would not allow for as much creativity and applicability of forms in given contexts as it does. So my most important focus when it comes to language form is to find out and understand the core meaning of a structure, and to differentiate between that core and possible additional meanings or usages depending on context and words used.

The meaning of a verb, for instance, strongly influences the interpretation of a form. To give an example: If I say ‘I’m eating’ then the use of the ‘present’ continuous will be interpreted as referring to the present time of speaking. That does not, however, mean that expressing present time is the core meaning of the so-called ‘present’ continuous. It is not. If you look at the sentence: ‘I am writing a book’ I might not, or most likely am not, writing at the moment of speaking. What I am expressing is that my activity of writing is not complete and still in progress, even if I’m not at it at the moment of speaking.

These and other aspects will be discussed in the posts on the English verb structure system. You will find all parts together under Language Issues.

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