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(Preamble: this post is literally about the meaning of the word “correct” in this context, but also, of course, overlaps with the philosophy of prescriptive perspectives in the process. I hope that this is not considered off-topic, as I cannot think of a better group of people to ask. )

I do not understand the meaning of the word “correct” in this context, as I cannot think of any objective or meaningful standard that correctness could be derived from.

I understand the notion of clarity in pronunciation or grammar. Pronouncing a word such that it might easily be confused with a different word is unclear. Similarly impaired communication can occur as a result of using a word or grammatical structure in a way that is likely to be interpreted differently than intended.

But what miscommunication could occur by saying “Feb-u-ary” vs. “Feb-RU-ary” or by responding to “May I talk to Joan, please?” with “This is her,” vs. “This is she”? There is a large set of “errors” that have no seeming impact on clarity.

So, “correct,” as it is generally used, does not exclusively mean “likely to be understood.” But I don’t understand the notion of the word apart from that.

Language is a naturally evolving phenomenon. It is a brilliant social tool that began to emerge millions of years, and has been evolving in the form of verbal grammar for at least fifty millennia, and likely much longer than that. At some point very recently in development, scholars decided to document their languages, basically taking a descriptive snapshot of a moving force at a moment in time. Are these documents considered the source of what is correct? Or is there some other authority? Regardless of the source, why impose a regressive authority on an inherently progressive phenomenon?

In brainstorming, I conjured a few possible reasons.

One reason is to intentionally prevent a natural evolution of language that might lead to a divergence of tongues. By formally encouraging adherence to a linguistic standard, localized communities are in less danger (opportunity?) of evolving a divisive dialect. However, with the prevalence of television alone, I don’t think we have much to worry about there.

The second reason is to create a badge of pedigree; a way to distinguish those who have been formally educated in a set of (arbitrary?) rules from those who haven’t. Is this a worthy goal?

The third reason relates to the precision and artistry that come with mastery. A deep understanding of the nuances of different word meanings and grammatical structures can allow ideas to be communicated more precisely, and can allow the words to sing rather than simply communicate. However, this is mostly a case for learning word meanings, and doesn’t apply to unambiguous word “mispronunciations” or grammatical “errors.”

And so, I ask humbly, with a true desire to learn: what does it mean to be correct in pronunciation or grammar? If it is not the native speakers themselves, then who is the authority that can be appealed to?

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+1 for “This is her,” vs. “This is she” ;) –  Joe Philllips Oct 15 '11 at 23:30
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+1 for "moving force at a moment in time"... that almost sums up the whole question of "correctness". –  Andrew Vit Oct 15 '11 at 23:41
    
This is an interesting topic for discussion, but I think I'm going to have to vote to close. There are no "right answers" here - just observations on the nature of linguistic evolution. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 3:50
    
@FumbleFingers Whatever you see fit, though I think this is a legitimate question about the meaning of a word in context. –  Angada Oct 16 '11 at 3:52
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@Angada: In the end, so far as what does it mean to be correct? is concerned, I don't see how any definition of "correct" can be the correct answer. And as to who is the [final] authority?, you've already answered that one yourself. Over time, it's always the native speakers, not the dictionaries or style guides. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 4:06
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4 Answers 4

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The problem is that the terms correct and incorrect are used in situations where non-standard, unusual or unlikely would be better descriptions.

Double negatives are non-standard but "correct" in certain dialects. The phrase a strong smoker is an unusual collocation (cf. a heavy smoker), but can hardly said to be incorrect. How have you got that black eye? is an unlikely sentence, but again cannot said to be incorrect.

Nevertheless, the term incorrect can be applied to large areas of grammar. It is simply incorrect to say: Understand do I you not or She has two dog or I will play football yesterday.

There's a case for saying that the authority in these cases is the grammatical hard-wiring that would lead every native English speaker to reject such formulations.

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+1 for non-standard. But I don't really think "grammatical hard-wiring" explains everything that might be labelled "incorrect". My own hard-wiring, for example, is adamant that this car needs washed is totally incorrect. Most people agree with me, but obviously not everyone. –  FumbleFingers Oct 15 '11 at 21:37
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Agreed. It needs washed, etc. is "hard-wired" into some Scottish native English speakers, for example, but sounds strange to me too. My point is that if 100% of native speakers reject a particular formulation, then we are justified in calling that formulation incorrect. –  Shoe Oct 15 '11 at 21:54
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Yes, absolutely. If 100% of the native speakers say a formulation is "wrong", then it must be wrong. Even if it's grammatically/semantically equivalent to a known "right" version. No-one thinks that raining dogs and cats is correct, for example. –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 3:45
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I find the words correct and incorrect to be inadequate terms in the discussion of language. I try to limit them myself to what is spoken by infants and foreign learners before they become competent. I find it much more helpful to think in terms of whether a piece of discourse achieves the purpose the speaker or writer has in mind. The language used will vary according to time and place, and it will also vary according to the topic under discussion, the relationship between those involved and the means of communication. (For the linguistically minded, that's a very crude attempt to put into simple terms Michael Halliday's concepts of field, tenor and mode.)

If I may crave indulgence, I have written elsewhere on this topic. Here's the final paragraph:

When I read a sentence I ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Do I want to read any more of this stuff?’ ‘Getting it right’ means successfully using language to achieve the purpose intended, not necessarily complying with a set of rules. Achieving the purpose intended includes producing a sympathetic response in our readers. Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness seems to me more likely to produce the desired result. The alternative seems to suppose that once you have complied with the rules laid down by this or that authority you have done all you need to. That is far from the truth.

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As @Barrie implies, the words correct and incorrect are often misused in the context of language use. And in fact they're far more likely to be used by pedagogues and grammarians (prescriptivists) than by linguists (descriptivists).

Having said that, there are plenty of usages that most/all competent speakers would agree are "incorrect" - even if people do use them, and others understand them perfectly well. For example, few would defend Pink Floyd's We Don't Need No Education as "correct" use of English. But we all understand what it means, and most of us get the "joke".

To specifically address OP's question as to who decides what constitutes "correct" usage?, I think the answer is simply that it's a consensus of many different groups. Or not, oftentimes, since even here on EL&U we often see unresolved disagreements on such matters. Though my own impression is that on average the site leans towards tolerant descriptivism rather than endless appeals to "authorities" which are often somewhat behind the times.

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As far as multiple negation is concerned I would say, rather, that modern Standard English does not allow it, but that other dialects do. –  Barrie England Oct 15 '11 at 19:00
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@Barrie: Well, the scope of the word "dialect" itself can vary. Mostly I think of it as regionally delimited, as opposed to vernacular, which is more to do with social groups. I'm Cockney/Estuary English, so I ain't got no problems with cancelling double negatives, obviously. But I'm quite well aware it's not "correct", even though I don't mind saying or hearing it. And just like everyone else, I use weaselly constructions like I can't disagree with you when I definitely don't mean I do agree. –  FumbleFingers Oct 15 '11 at 21:28
    
As David Crystal says in his definition of dialect in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, it is ‘A language variety in which use of grammar and vocabulary identifies the regional or social background of the user’. That seems to me to cover the language of those who use multiple negation (found, as it is, both in social and regional varieties of the language) as much as it covers Standard English. –  Barrie England Oct 16 '11 at 5:55
    
As for few defending Pink Floyd, those who might use "We don't need no education" without irony probably don't spend a lot of their time trying to define what is and isn't 'correct' English. –  Sam Oct 16 '11 at 6:40
    
@Sam: I think I myself put the lie to that one. I'm pretty sure I've never said exactly I/we don't don't need no education without irony. But I will have said things like I don't need none of your shit to rudely/informally dismiss someone's opinion. Where I might be consciously aware of swearing, but not really register that I'm using a double negative at the same time. And yet I probably spend more time than most fretting about what is and isn't 'correct' English - witness all the time I fritter away here on EL&U! :) –  FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 12:23
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I would say the primary function of correctness (or lack thereof) in language is to communicate your relationship with a group. Correctness is a part of linguistic register.

Example 1: You are getting married. The officiator asks you one of two questions:

  1. "Do you, ----, take ----, to be your (husband/wife), to have and to hold ...." Complete sentences, verbatim copy of traditional vow.

  2. "Do you wish to marry ----?" Complete sentence, but not verbatim copy of traditional vow.

Here, #2 is obviously incorrect and #1 is correct (except at some weddings). A wedding is normally an extremely formal event, and due to its gravity, the language of the vows uses a very high register. Any deviation from the prescribed wording is an error. The function of correctness in this situation is to demonstrate how serious you are about getting married.

Example 2: You run into a friend who says, "Hey, ----, what's up?" Here are two possible replies:

  1. "I am doing well. How are you doing?" Complete sentences, formal register.

  2. "Not much. Didja catch the game last night?" Sentence fragments, casual register.

If you use response #1, then your register demonstrates a certain social distance from your friend. You are communicating that your relationship is not close. If you want to act friendly with this person, then response #2 is correct and response #1 is incorrect.

Grammar prescriptivists have a near monopoly on the common definition for what it means to write or speak "correct" English. According to this theory, the prescriptivists are just one more group which you can associate with or not, at your choosing. Prescriptive correctness lets you communicate that you are an educated person, and presumably you wish to associate with other educated people.

Of course, there are other functions of correctness. Incorrect technical specifications and legal documents are dangerous things. But group membership is something we navigate many times each day.

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