Speaking proper english: An improper assumption

Andy Landolfi

So let me begin with something that may startle some: proper English—in an oral context—exists nowhere. Although you may speak well, (I know many people who also tell me they speak “good”) you do not speak proper English.

So here’s the rationale: English, in its most proper form, exists only in written texts, and even there, some debate exists (take the Oxford comma, for example). When an individual attempts to extract Standard English from a written context, and then implement it in real-world conversation, oral linguistic variability inhibits the “proper” performance (because, you know, life is a stage, right?) of the text.

One variable that hinders an individual’s ability to speak Standard English stems from the influence of oral dialect—different geographical locations often result in varied and systematic discrepancies in linguistic usage. For instance, although an individual from the Boston area may properly spell the word “car” on paper, he or she may pronounce the word as “cah.” This rationale works for other dialects, too.

Aside from dialectic variability, there exists other linguistic deviations—in oral performance—from written Standard English. Different situations result in different levels of individual focus on the delivery of his or her oral diction. For instance, the way one speaks with his or her friends differs immensely from how an individual may speak in a college classroom. Additionally, an adult speaks differently with children and infants than with other adults. Essentially, humans attempt to utilize a derivative of English that most effectively fits the current social circumstance, even if the usage conflicts with the written linguistic standard.

Despite the inherent impropriety of the English language in oral utilization, a general belief in standard spoken English exists: The delivery of certain strains of American English appear to be viewed as more superior iterations of the English language. This belief, however, constructs itself on popular belief only, not current linguistic theory.

The belief in inferior and superior oral English—what linguists call a prescriptive approach to language—arises from what some strains of English possess, not what they lack. For instance, language that contains subject-verb inconsistencies (i.e. we was) is less valued than language that does not contain those inconsistencies. So although all oral utilizations of English may be imperfect, some attempts at language are viewed as more perfect than others because of a decline in stigmatized—and these stigmas are constructed by arbitrary social beliefs—grammatical errors.

So when it comes to speaking, an individual can speak well, or they can speak good; chances are, however, they don’t speak properly—I can almost guarantee it. Spoken English—it turns out—is an imperfect art form at best, but it is the unavoidable imperfection that allows language to transition into art.