What Does “Proper English” Mean?

And who made all these proper English rules?

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

The Slippery Slope

As long as we’ve had language varieties, we’ve also had stereotypes about the people who speak those varieties. But the implementation of the standard form of a language—couched as it so often is in terms of elegance, propriety, and correctness—can take an otherwise unassuming us/them split and institutionally marry it to a set of pernicious value judgments: what is “right,” what is “educated,” what is “civilized,” what is “good.”

Linguists and philosophers, and just about anyone who has ever stopped to think about it, have been doing battle with perceptions like these for centuries—just as they have been doing battle with similarly ingrained stereotypes relating to race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And they’re having about as much luck with the former as they are with the latter. Today conspicuously non-standard varieties of English—particularly those spoken in the South and by African-Americans—are still routinely characterized as “defective,” “lazy,” and flat-out “wrong.”

But the truth is this: every variety of English is equally regularized and expressive—just as every language is equally expressive. They all have their own internal rules and grammar. Despite what the usage mavens of yesteryear might have us believe, proficiency with Standard English has nothing to do with innate linguistic superiority, or cognitive or moral superiority. Though the language we use in any given situation is surely a product of external circumstances, it is in no way a function of internal worth.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn Standard English—quite the contrary, given the importance placed upon its usage, it would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

But surely there’s room for one more standardization: that we all agree to do away with the idea that there’s a single, objectively superior form we call “proper” English. It’s much more accurate to refer to what many think of as proper English with the term language scholars use: “Standard English.”

This podcast was written by Elizabeth Little, who traveled America meeting people who speak America’s many languages and dialects including Navajo, Basque, and Gullah. Her book is Trip of the Tongue. Website | Twitter


About the Author

Elizabeth Little, Writing for Grammar Girl

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