I've learned that there is no authoritative dictionary for English. I wonder on what juristic basis students are corrected when making mistakes in an English class. How can someone say that whatever the student did wrong is not considered correct English by other people.

In German schools, students may only be "punished" (by getting a bad mark) when they had the chance to know better. For example when they have violated a rule in the official German dictionary. That is impossible when there is no official dictionary.

How do schools in Britain or the US handle that issue?

Note: There is no official reference of the German language either. However, authorities in Germany are advised to use the German language as specified in a dictionary called "Duden". Pupils in Germany are graded using the "Duden" dictionary. Other German-speaking countries may use other dictionary.

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    On what basis are you corrected in maths class? Geography? Sports? You just go to school and learn whatever the teacher teaches you. And for all you know, the teacher may be wrong. And as a matter of fact, sometimes he is. This is a question about school systems and laws, not English. Plus your premise is flawed. Duden is no longer binding since 1996, and while it used to be binding before that, the Federal Constutional Court has ruled that that was against the Constitution. If you use the Duden, that is your personal choice. I never have, in school or otherwise. – RegDwigнt Mar 23 '12 at 10:48
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    Voting to reopen - I thought I had a decent answer for this... – J.R. Mar 23 '12 at 10:54
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    It don't think that my question is off topic. It is about English usage in schools and what is concerned correct or wrong usage. – MBober Mar 23 '12 at 11:33
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    Sutdents may be corrected, for example, when they use words like "juristic" that others will not understand. – GEdgar Mar 23 '12 at 13:51
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    There is no official, binding dictionary in German either. This is a common misunderstanding. The Duden is collecting common usage but it’s not binding by any law. Some governmental authorities may require their employees to abide by its rules (e.g. German teachers) but that’s it. Note also that there are discrepancies e.g. between Duden and Langenscheidt and neither is autoritative (even in school!). This is partly what makes the Neue Rechtschreibung so schizophrenic: it tried to define a “new binding set of rules” where there are no binding rules. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 23 '12 at 15:48

Kaffee: Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.
Cpl. Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that's not in the book, sir.
Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you've never had a meal?
Cpl. Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.
Kaffee: I don't understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it's not in this book?
Cpl. Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

- A Few Good Men

While there is no authoritative source, there are many different sources which are in agreement, and many which will commonly be cited. Additionally, certain common spelling and grammatical mistakes are highlighted early on in our education, with the same teaching from one school and book to another (my experience with two schools and several books).

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is often used in the UK in lieu of an authoritative source. However, it's updated regularly with new words and phrases, keeping track of the language rather than seeking to constrain it. We may not have a rule book, but we know where the mess hall is.

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  • Teachers don't consult or cite sources for every correction. They just apply their personal opinion, which 90% of the time will happen to agree with the sort of sources that you describe. – amcnabb Mar 23 '12 at 16:28

British schools teach, or should teach, Standard English. Standard English is the language used in most published writing and spoken in contexts such as education, broadcasting, the law and public administration. The most authoritative source on English vocabulary is, as others have said, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), not least because it illustrates its definitions with citations showing the way in which words have been used in the past and how they are used now. It is, however, a commercial publication and has no standing in law or with any other kind of authority such as an academy.

The grammar of Standard English is codified in academic works such as the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ and ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’. Like the OED, they have no official status, and it is doubtful whether most English teachers consult them or even know of their existence. In spite of this, and apart from a number of disputed areas, there is widespread agreement on what constitutes Standard English, or at least on what doesn’t constitute it. This is partly because the differences between Standard English and other dialects are actually quite few in number and partly because examples of Standard English are freely available in newspapers and on television and radio.

None of this, however, means that all children leaving British schools speak and write Standard English. They may continue using their own dialects and there is no reason why they should not do so in the appropriate context, but if they have not been effectively taught to communicate in Standard English their life chances are diminished. Unfortunately, many people, including, no doubt, some teachers, confuse informal English and social and regional varieties of English with incorrect English.

That’s a long way of saying that there is no formal basis on which Standard English can be assessed in the UK. In assessing children’s competence in it teachers and examiners must ultimately rely on their own judgement and experience, consulting academic sources as necessary.

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    +1 for there being widespread (and vociferous) agreement on what doesn't constitute Standard English. – Lunivore Mar 23 '12 at 14:01

In Britain the OED is generally regarded as the most authoritative source, probably because it's one of the largest and oldest and published by an academic press. It's constantly updated, and the online version is ahead of the printed edition.

The juristic basis for marking is common law, "the body of law based on custom and decisions by judges, in contrast to statute law." Judges in this context would include members here! Common law isn't formally codified and can be adjusted over time as attitudes change (which is why the OED is updated). That basis is actually what makes English as flexible as it is.

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    No, it wouldn't include common law. There is no juristic basis for English. – Marcin Mar 23 '12 at 15:53
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    @Marcin: you can't leave it at that, unless you are prepared to say that nobody can ever correct somebody else's English. – Tim Lymington Mar 23 '12 at 16:11
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    @TimLymington I fail to see why that is a valid inference. – Marcin Mar 23 '12 at 16:14
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    @TimLymington The common law is the received body of judicial decisions from the courts of common law jurisdictions. While there are decisions that turn on the meaning of English language, there are not, to my knowledge, decisions that lay down the meaning of English, and I am not aware that anyone other than lawyers consults those judgments to understand the rules of English. – Marcin Mar 23 '12 at 17:26
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    @Marcin The OP asked about the juristic basis. The juristic basis is that of common law (ie customs and decisions by judges, not formally codified). I didn't say that "judges" meant judicial figures; I even went as far as to say that "judges" included members here. You seem to have interpreted my answer as saying common law is used, rather than the principles of common law. – Andrew Leach Mar 27 '12 at 11:29

There is no juristic basis. The law does not prescribe the elements of English, nor does it intrude into the proper activities of the classroom (it does, of course, proscribe improper activities).

There are norms that are not legal norms. The rules of grammar and usage are such norms.

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Just because there is no single "authoritative dictionary for English," doesn't mean there aren't any bona fide mistakes.

99% of all mistakes made by students in school can be settled using any desktop dictionary. For example, the sentence:

Hay, teacher, theirs no whey u can say I'm wrong, fore they're is no reel rule book.

may get through my spell checker, but it's still rife with errors.

In the rare cases where there may not be unanimous agreement on a language question, many dictionaries consult usage panels, comprised of linguists and other experts. These panels weigh in areas where there may not be a definitive answer. "The phrase 'cannot but' is accepted by a majority of the usage panel," e.g. [from the American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin, Boston].

Language evolves; variants emerge and slowly become accepted. However, when students are corrected in grammar school, the issue is rarely some subtle nuance of the language, accepted by sum [sic] and rejected by others.

I've migrated this from my comment now that this question has been reopened.
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    The American Heritage Dictionary is prescriptive, right? More descriptive dictionaries like the OED wouldn't bother with usage panels, would they? – amcnabb Mar 23 '12 at 16:27
  • @amcnabb: I'm not sure what you're getting at. I never meant to imply it was prescriptive or definitive; in fact, quite the opposite. My sole point was that contentious issues arise within the language, and dictionaries often consult usage panels to handle a lack of unanimity. (I consulted AHD as an example only because it happened to be handy on my desk). – J.R. Mar 23 '12 at 19:22
  • My point was that usage panels aren't the only way of dealing with disagreement on a language question. The alternative is to just disagree because a question often just comes down to personal opinion. – amcnabb Mar 23 '12 at 19:27
  • @amcnabb: Sure. Whenever a usage panel disagrees, then it would come down to personal opinion, particularly when the panel is sharply diveded. But even one dissenting opinion on a usage panel could be grounds for siding with that viewpoint. Frankly, I've always fascinated by the usage panel notes in a dictionary - I remember seeing some dictionaries would always provide the exact percentages, and some of those were pretty close votes (e.g., "57% of the Usage Panel agrees that..."). BTW, thanks for the clarification - I didn't know what to make of your initial question. – J.R. Mar 23 '12 at 19:38
  • @amcnabb it seems to me that a usage panel is a particularly descriptive approach. Rather than saying, for example, "'comprise' means 'contain' and you must use it as such," they say "'comprise' originally meant 'contain' but it is increasingly used to mean 'compose' and this usage has come to be accepted by [X] percent of a group of experts we consulted." – phoog Jul 30 '14 at 18:28

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