Course Introduction
Unit 1: Defining English
Unit 2: Using English
Unit 3: Learning English
Unit 4: Teaching English
Unit 5: Changing English
End of Course

1.3.3 Rules of English: The plurilithic view

Concept: Rules can be seen as ‘regularities’ describing ‘actual’ usage

From the perspective of linguistics, which describes language as it actually is rather than how some people want it to be, rules are the regular patterns which are found: (a) in the ‘communal’ usage of specific groups of people (e.g. in dialects); and (b) in the minds of individual users (part of their idiolects). Thus, according to a plurilithic view of English, there are different rules for different users and uses.

To see this in more detail, let’s take the expression of negation on English verbs. In ‘Standard English’ and some other varieties, the regularity is that the particle not (regularly contracted to n’t) is added to an auxiliary verb, or have and be as main verbs; quantifying words and phrases using any often follow. For example:

  1. I haven’t been anywhere.
  2. I don’t have anything.

In some unstandardised varieties of English, the regularity is that negation is expressed through the particle not and a second negative marker (with no instead of any) in quantifier position:

  1. I haven’t been nowhere.
  2. I don’t have nothing.

This rule is called negative concord, and it occurs across the USA (especially in African American English: Howe, 2005) and Great Britain (although it’s less common in the North than the South: Anderwald, 2005).

So there are two rules which capture the regularities of negation in communities of English users: one in which a single negative marker is used (e.g. in ‘Standard English’) and one in which negation is marked twice (e.g. in African American English). According to a ‘rules-as-regulation’ orientation, the second rule is ‘incorrect’ because it is ‘illogical’  (everyone knows that ‘two negatives equal a positive’!). This argument has been repeated for centuries, and is still made today, e.g. on the engVid website, which offers free English lessons: see Fig. 1.7. According to the engVid teacher Ronnie:

As an English learner it is important to understand slang, but you shouldn’t try to use incorrect grammar, especially in cases like this where it can make people think you mean the opposite of what you want to say! I’ll show you examples of some of the most common double negatives that English learners and native speakers use. You’ll learn how to correct these mistakes so that your English is clear and correct.

Notice how use of the negative concord rule is identified by Ronnie in the video as ‘stupid’ and ‘without class’ and viewers are told not to use it: this is quintessential regulation. Yet in many other languages, negative concord is the custom (in the ‘standard’ variety too). Take Spanish, for example:

  1. No he estado en ningúna parte (the translation of [1] and [3] above).
  2. No tengo nada (the translation of [2] and [4] above).

When the King of Spain, Jennifer López, Pope Francis and other Spanish native speakers say sentences like these, no-one would think to call them ‘stupid’, ‘without class’ or users of ‘incorrect grammar’. Furthermore, the negative concord rule was the norm in Old English (over a thousand years ago) and into Middle English, when the poet Chaucer could write sentences like the following, with four negative markers! 

  1. He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde in al his lyf unto no maner wight

‘In his whole life he has never said anything wicked to anyone’

We all use grammatical rules, following the regularities we hear in the usage around us. Some rules have more social prestige than others, but to call those with less prestige ‘incorrect’ or ‘stupid’ is to impose a value judgement based on (stereotypes about) the user, rather than on logic or linguistic science.

In Unit 3 we’ll return to the different senses of rule as ‘regulation’ and ‘regularity’ and see how misunderstanding of the difference has led to a mismatch between the rules teachers teach for tests and the rules learners learn for use.

Reflection 1.2

The beliefs about ‘correct English’ challenged in this section are very strongly held by many people. The resilience of these beliefs makes it hard to appreciate that what is generally thought of as ‘incorrect’ usage may just be the use of alternative rules

Reflect on how convincing you find the linguistic view of ‘correctness’ and let us know what you think in the discussion section at the bottom of the page.

Discussion Section

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