What Does “Proper English” Mean?

And who made all these proper English rules?

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

The Rules of the Game

At first standards were largely—though not exclusively—determined by the language of the royal clerks. The rise of the printing press also played a key role in standardizing language, particularly with regard to spelling. For instance, we have foreign compositors and typefaces to thank for the use of “gh” instead of “g” in certain words (such as “ghost”).

Soon enough, though, the subject of language standardization was taken up by dictionary writers, grammarians, and even general linguistic busybodies.

The Influence of Scholars

It’s much more accurate to refer to what many think of as proper English with the term language scholars use: “Standard English.”

Many of the early English dictionaries and grammars ostensibly sought to describe prevailing usage—they were not meant to be prescriptive. But, of course, the selection of any one variety as a representative form is, in and of itself, a kind of prescription.

These early and influential dictionaries and grammars relied on a variety of criteria to determine their recommended words and rules. In his landmark Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson—a man who famously remarked that “the chief glory of a nation arises from its authors”—leaned heavily on citations from widely respected authors, a trend that continues to this day. Grammarians had their own guiding principles, often calling on logic (decrying double negatives and superlatives) or etymology (railing against the substitution of “nauseous” for “nauseated”).

Others rationales were more subjective. Some writers, for instance, believed that it was better to use one-syllable words whenever possible because they were closer to the language of Adam and Eve. And then there were those who felt so strongly about the linguistic virtues of Latin and Greek that they could come to believe, as John Dryden famously did, that a preposition at the end of a sentence is something to be strenuously avoided. (Read the article about ending a sentence with a preposition.)

No matter how persuasive the scholarship, the facts remain the same: the variety that would become Standard English was based on the varieties of the political, economic, and intellectual elite—not because they were necessarily better, but because they were the ones who got to decide.

The Authority of Salesmen

This is when things start to get a bit tricky.

The literary market in the 17th and 18th centuries was not so different from our own. There wasn’t much demand for linguistic observation—what readers wanted was linguistic guidance. And again and again, scholars and linguists from Johnson to Webster to Henry Higgins did their best to fill this need. Even Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the earliest English dictionary, makes explicit on its title page that it has been “gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better understand many hard English words.”

But as social mobility increased, the standards of the written language exerted more and more influence on the spoken language, which was looked to as a measure of refinement and “politeness.” Soon the demand for linguistic instruction outstripped the scholarly supply, and readers began to snap up handbooks and how-tos whose advice was justified not by years of study—or any study at all, for that matter—but rather by the ruthlessly efficient principle of “you should.”

Or, more accurately, “you shouldn’t.”

So it was that non-standard language became a nuisance to be dealt with (like troublesome household vemin, as in the 1878 volume Enquire Within upon Everything) or a bad habit to be frowned upon (like breathing through your mouth, as in 1888’s Don’t: A Little Book dealing Frankly with Mistakes & Improprieties more or less Common to All).

And when you teach that there is only one way to be right, it’s only natural to conclude that every other way is wrong. We can see next how that plays into stereotypes.


About the Author

Elizabeth Little, Writing for Grammar Girl

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