What Does “Proper English” Mean?

And who made all these proper English rules?

Elizabeth Little, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #317

What Is Standard English?

Today we’re going to tackle an interesting question: When we talk about “Proper English,” what exactly do we mean? Do we mean the English that you can take home to your grandmother? Do we mean the English that will impress your boss? Or do we mean the English that everyone will understand?

Most of the time, we mean all these things. When we go looking for grammar guidance, we’re hoping to refine our tone, our sophistication, and our clarity. We want, at the end of the day, to be better writers.

But if we mean those things, then what we should really say is “Standard English”—although it would probably be even more accurate to say, “The English That a Very Few People Agreed Upon About 600 Years Ago and That We’re Now Mostly Stuck With.”

Because when we use the phrase “proper English,” we’re playing into a whole mess of stereotypes and misconceptions about language. All it takes is a quick look at the history of Standard English to see why this might be true.

Setting the Stage: The History of Englishproperenglish

I like to think of a standard variety of language as the lingua franca for speakers of a single language. A speaker from West Texas, for instance, might have trouble understanding a speaker from South Boston, but neither one of them has any trouble watching the national news, which is conducted in Standard English—the type of English that just about everyone will understand wherever it’s spoken.

English first flirted with written standardization back in the ninth century, when Alfred the Great noticed that everyone’s Latin wasn’t what it used to be (is it ever?) and requested Anglo-Saxon translations of “those books that are most necessary for all men to know.” (From the preface to Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care.)

When William the Conqueror showed up in 1066, however, he brought with him a slew of scribes and courtiers whose languages of choice were Latin and Norman French, and English was more or less exiled to the monasteries for the next few centuries.

Still, English never ceased to be a widely spoken language. So when England ultimately distanced itself from France, English was right there waiting, ready to reassert itself into official business and the written record.

It happened slowly at first, but by the time of Henry V, English had displaced French as a language of government almost entirely.

Soon the use of written English was spreading rapidly, from guild masters to merchants to churchmen, many of whom must have been wildly relieved to be able to conduct business in a version of their native language.

As English began to be used for increasingly important purposes, it become increasingly important to use a form of English that everyone could understand—and that everyone would respect. But still, who determined the rules?