Judging language correctness: a visual framework

Only last year, debates over the correctness or incorrectness of written language use made front page news.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide for his staff prompted more column inches than most linguists, grammarians or copy editors would have thought possible on such a dry topic. Including some from this commentator. Not all the opinions were complimentary.

And I don’t really like adding to the tally of column inches on JRM.

But the debate prompted me to revisit a visual tool I use in my shortcourse classes at City, University of London to try to help students conceptualise the idea of correctness.

When is it legitimate to challenge something on grounds that it’s incorrect? And when is it not?

The idea of correctness

First, I have to say this framework is not always a monster hit when I present it. In one conference workshop the feedback was that it was ‘a bit too theoretical’.

And when it comes up in class students sometimes look nonplussed and their eyes glaze over. My answer is the politicians’ retort: ‘Well, I need to do a better job of explaining it!’

Here’s the basic idea, as illustrated by the picture at the top of this blog.

Grammar

We’re assessing whether the question ‘Is [something] correct or incorrect?’ is valid or not. The simple answer is it depends a lot on whether the [something] relates to grammar, which I also call rules for these purposes.

Going back to the picture, you’ll see a complete overlap between the blue triangle (representing correctness) and the red circle (representing grammar or rules).

In short – if [something] is to do with grammar, i.e. rules, then it is fair game for someone to judge it correct or incorrect.

Usage

If the [something] you are looking at is to do with usage – which we will define soon – then it is not so clear cut.

There are some areas of usage where it’s legitimate to call something correct or incorrect. Especially if you’re using standard English, in business or professional communications. Looking back at the stylised picture at the top of this blog, these areas are represented by the three black shapes tucked in to the orange usage circle.

But also notice there are large chunks of the orange circle which fall outside the correctness triangle. Much of language usage has nothing to do with correctness. It’s a matter of choice, and should be judged as such.

Still, there’s some overlap between correctness and usage. We’ll say more on that later.

Style

Finally style. If [something] is purely to do with style and not grammar or usage then the whole idea of correctness hardly applies at all. Back to the picture: there is very little overlap between the correctness triangle and the big green style circle: just the little black triangular area at the top.

Much of what we call style has nothing at all to do with correctness. It’s about making choices between equally valid alternatives.

So far, so theoretical…

But what do these ideas really mean? What actually is grammar? What is usage. How does does it differ from style? How do we recognise them when we see them?

Grammar in practice

Grammar is about systems and structure. It’s a set of underlying rules without which the meaning of a communication would be unclear. Grammar experts usually talk about two broad topics: syntax and morphology.

Syntax is the set of rules for arranging words and phrases to make up sentences. Morphology is the way in which words vary (‘inflect’, to use the technical term) to convey different meanings. This includes things like -s for a plural noun; or -ed for a past tense verb.

Grammar is not about word choice, pronunciation, spelling or (in most cases – with a few exceptions) punctuation.

In a bid to make things simple and understandable here is a list of things in English that I tell students are grammatical, whether to do with syntax (S) or morphology (M).

  • Word order (S)
  • Sentence structure (S)
  • Verb tense (S/M)
  • Noun-verb and noun-pronoun agreement (M)
  • Certain uses of punctuation related to sentence integrity (S)

This is an over-simplification. Linguists would not have built entire careers on defining and interpreting English grammar if it all boiled down to five bullet points. But you can think of them as five (of the) core headings of English grammar.

Beyond these it is likely – not certain but likely – that the [something] you are looking at is usage or style, and not grammar. And thus less constrained by ideas of correctness than you might imagine.

Back to JRM – again

I promised not to add to the already-too-large tally of words on JRM’s style guide. But just to test my simplified theory about what is grammar and what is not, let’s see if we can apply it to any of the items in JRM’s list.

I’d say only one item falls in this category. It’s one that caused a bit of debate in grammatical circles about what JRM really meant anyway: ‘no comma after and’.

On the face of it, this is straightforward and grammatical. In that last sentence you would not have said ‘straightforward and, grammatical’. If ‘and’ is used as a simple conjunction you do not have a comma after it, just as JRM says. That’s correct.

Nor would you in this sentence featuring the ubiquitous Trump:

❌ During his trip Donald Trump played golf at Turnberry and, Troon.

There are instances, however, where you would. If your sentence includes a parenthetical phrase, with commas, you might easily use a comma after ‘and’, as the first in a parenthetical pair:

✅ Donald Trump played golf at Turnberry and, by and large, enjoyed his round.

This is OK. It would also be OK without either of the parenthetical commas. Though some stylists would prefer them, to clarify the meaning given the extra ‘and’ in the middle of the parenthetical phrase.

But let’s be generous. Let’s assume JRM was aiming simply to proscribe a comma after ‘and’ in a conjunctive phrase. That is indeed a point of grammar, and the only instance of grammar in his style guide.

Usage in practice

Usage is harder to define and recognise. The Concise OED has it as ‘the way in which a word or phrase is normally and correctly used’ [my bold]. I tell students it’s mainly about word choice. Which word to choose, in what context, to convey their meaning accurately?

Some of JRM’s style guide constraints fall in this category:

  • ‘Organisations are singular’
  • ‘Non-titled males are Esq.’
  • ‘Use imperial measurements’ [his bold]

But it’s certainly not incorrect to use the alternative formulations. It is just a different choice.

✅ The President told the World Bank it was barking up the wrong tree. [JRM preference]

✅ The President told the World Bank they were barking up the wrong tree.

✅ Trump’s favourite business writing lecturer is Howard Walwyn, Esq. [JRM preference]

✅ Trump’s favourite business writing lecturer is Mr Howard Walwyn.

✅ Trump’s favourite business writing lecturer is Howard Walwyn.

✅ The President is fully 6 feet 3 inches tall. [JRM preference]

✅ The President is fully 1.9 metres tall.

Words banned by JRM

Definitely in the category of usage is any prohibition on using particular words or phrases. See below for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s examples. None of these are incorrect; they are simply not preferred by JRM for official purposes. And fair enough. But we should recognise the constraint for what it is: a preference, nothing more.

Source: ITV news website, 26th July 2019

‘Incorrect’ usage

Even usage has some grey areas, and some things that you might deem incorrect even if you take the common liberal view that language is organic and should be allowed to live, breathe and evolve.

Whole books have been written about these topics and I don’t propose an exhaustive review in this short blog. If you want two really excellent treatments on usage, Chapter 6 of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (‘Telling Right From Wrong’) is about as good as you can get; and the whole of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to Good English is an entertaining read, disemboweling sticklers and flying the flag for liberal linguists everywhere.

For our summary purposes here are some examples of what I (a flag-flying liberal linguist) would nonetheless consider incorrect usage; and one I wouldn’t.

Homophones

They’re/their/there, you’re/your, who’s/whose, its/it’s, lead/led. I would categorise the unexpected version of any of these as incorrect usage:

❌ ❌ ❌ Donald and Melania found there own way to they’re holiday resort and had a burger once they got their.

Similarly stationery/stationary, dependent/dependant (subject to dictionary guidance), effect/affect, principle/principal and a host of others treated more fully by Pinker, Kamm and other experts.

Idiomatic English usage

By far the biggest category of incorrectness in usage is where standard English ‘just doesn’t say it like that’ – even if the usage is idiomatic. There are thousands of examples, too many to list in this short blog. But just as an example I mean things like ✅ comprise/ ✅ consist of/ ❌ comprise of.

Malapropisms

Whether used for comic effect or not, using words that are similar-sounding-but-not-quite-right counts as incorrect usage, to my eye:

❌ Trump predicated on Twitter that he would win the election [as opposed to ✅ predicted]

Preposition use

To be clear, I don’t include preposition use in this list. I take a liberal view of that topic. If students use an unexpected preposition in homework I don’t tell them it’s ‘wrong’ – I say it’s ‘not the best preposition’. This is because other forms of English (outside standard English) often have a different ‘best preposition’ from the one we expect in standard English. So who are we to judge?

Even so, given the demands of their reader I also tell students they’d better learn what the best preposition is and start using it. But on grounds of pragmatism, to avoid upsetting their reader and their content being swiped left (to use Sam Leith’s phrase), rather than on grounds of correctness.

Finally, style

Everything that’s not grammar and not usage is style.

Going back to the picture at the top, style barely overlaps at all with the blue triangle of correctness. The vast majority of style decisions are simply choices between equally valid alternatives. They can’t be deemed incorrect, merely choices.

There are a few exceptions, which going back to our picture represent the tiny black triangle just inside the green style circle.

Where mis-punctuation directly impinges on grammar (a missing full stop at the end of a sentence, or a comma splice) that is more like grammar than style or usage. So it can be deemed incorrect.

Another exception is internal inconsistency. If you use a single quote and a double quote mark in the same quote; or an en-dash and a hyphen around the same parenthetical phrase like in this example ❌ then that could be judged a matter of correctness.

Then there is the whole question of the style guide. If something does not align to the company, journal or JRM style guide, does that make it incorrect? I would say only in very puny relative terms. It is not incorrect in absolute terms, only with reference to an arbitrary set of style decisions.

Style according to JRM

Everything else on JRM’s list that’s not to do with grammar or usage is to do with style. For completeness we’ll just run through those with some presidential and political illustrations. None of the counter-examples are incorrect.

‘No full point after Miss or Ms’:

✅ Trump asked Ms Thunberg for her opinion [JRM]

✅ Trump asked Ms. Thunberg for her opinion

‘No need to write M.P. after name in body of text’:

✅ Trump asked Sajid Javid for a cup of tea [JRM]

✅ Trump asked Sajid Javid, M.P. for a cup of tea

‘In the address (as opposed to body of text see above guidance): for members of parliament who are male and not Privy Counsellors, Esq. should go before M.P.’:

✅ To: Anthony Browne, Esq., M.P. [JRM]

✅ To: Anthony Browne. ✅ To: Mr Anthony Browne. ✅ To: Anthony Browne, Esq. ✅ To: Anthony Browne, M.P.

Really, get a life; to my eye it doesn’t matter. They are all correct, whatever JRM says.

‘Double space after a full stop’:

✅ Trump met Browne.__They got on well. [JRM]

✅ Trump met Browne._They got on well.

This is one of the most controversial of JRM’s so-called rules. It really is not a rule; indeed is rapidly falling out of polite usage worldwide, given typewriter-era constraints are no longer relevant. If he wants to, he can of course, but we should all recognise it’s a choice; and on fashion grounds if nothing else an increasingly indefensible one.

And finally ‘CHECK your work’ [his bold]. Something that JRM and I seriously agree on. Probably the only thing.

Prism Clarity Wordcloud

What the reader wants

That last section, in one sense, reveals how the question of correctness will always be subjective. As I always say to my writing students, what the reader (in their case often the boss) wants is what you will give them.

The reader’s judgement of whether [something] is correct or not is all that matters. Thus rendering the whole correctness framework outlined in this blog rather meaningless.

Except it’s not. Armed with the distinctions outlined in this blog you can go home smiling quietly to yourself that when someone challenged your writing at least you knew you weren’t incorrect. You can counter-challenge or push back, to a point (without endangering your job). You can hold your head up high and claim the moral high ground.

At the very least, when confronted about your writing by sticklers, fuddy-duddies and purveyors of reactionary waistcoats you can have a sensible debate on the merit (and lack of merit) of their choices.