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Criteria of Correctness

Author(s): Karl W. Dykema
Source: College English, Vol. 1, No. 7 (Apr., 1940), pp. 616-623
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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I want to avoid a dogmaticconceptionof ideas-I want expansionto be truly in the natureof progress. is communi- cation. Much of the confusion in discussions of correctness may be attrib- uted to the failureto restrict the applicationof these criteriato their appropriatefunctions.. and with this intensificationcomesquietude -a calmnessand surenessof perception..once gained.I do not expect to find Truth quiescentlyawaitingme at the end of a neat little four year academic course.but I do expectto be less vaguein my searchforher. But it may also have other functions. act as a sort of oral gesture. And for each of these functions there is a stand- ard of acceptability. or serve as a touchstone for social position. This harmony.. I want to developpowersof disciplineand assimilation.acts as a protectivewall..a serenitythat is not stagnation.but to absorbinto my being the subtleand far-reachingeffectsof study.with no previousknowledge of topics to be assigned. The acquirementof knowledgeis probablythe most obviousand the pri- maryend whicha studentexpectsto gain in a university. CRITERIA OF CORRECTNESS KARL W. To separatesuch writingfrom the general run and to set the writer in the path where his progress will be unimpededby the crowd is the duty we owe superiorstu- dents. I want to developa serenityof spirit.616 COLLEGE ENGLISH My final illustrationwas written by an eighteen-year-oldgirl on the same subject.. The most noticeableof these effectsis a moreintensifiedpowerof mind. like all papers quoted...I want that wall about the innercenterof my mind to remainstrongbut flexible. was written impromptu. DYKEMA' The function of language. 'A member of the department of English. "What I Expect from College. it seems obvious enough.These qualitiesfuse themselvesinto that essentialharmonyof spirit and brain-perspective. A student who can write thus effectively would be wasting time in an elementarycompositioncourse. Youngstown College . It may provide emo- tional release. It must be rememberedthat this." and is the con- clusion of her paper.I hope to assimilate not only the elementaryfact of knowledge. Becausethesefouryearsmust necessarilybe only a foundation.. and criteria for determining that standard.

blasphemy-all have their standardsof acceptability. The languageof emotionalreleaseincludesin its vocabularywords of such intense connotative force that the grammarianhas usually hesitated to deal with them. the standard of acceptability is comprehensibility. CRITERIA OF CORRECTNESS 617 When language functions solely as a means of communication.Profanity. This is amply illustrated by a comparisonbetween a respectable eighteenth-centurynovel and a respectableVictoriannovel.of course-is used as a means of determin- ing whether a speakerbelongs to the right class. and most people understand pretty well how to observe those stand- ards. to be sure. ob- scenity. When an acquaintancepasses on the other side of the street a tip of the hat or a wave of the arm is sufficient. And here is where the grammar-bookstandard of correctnessbecomes important. This cri- terion can hardly be used. How d'ye do? Nice day"-as completely void of literal significanceas the gesture. There is little printed discussionof this function of language. he has handedthem over to the moralist who brands them as morally reprehensible. condemnsuch constructions as ain't.but if he is met on the same sidewalk a further greeting is expected: "Hello. Acceptability varies with usage just as it does with other words and phrases. the double negative. therefore.partly because the criteriaare largely emotionaland hence difficult to analyze and partly because the words are seldom al- lowed to appearin print. will be some- what reluctant to acknowledge their understandingof the vulgar they go to the . he don't. The criteria for this function have largely escaped formal discussion and are learned by uncon- scious observationof our fellows. By oral gesture I mean the spoken nothings that correspondto conventionalgestures of greeting. however. The manner of speech- includingpronunciation. and the most reprehended constructionsof the illiterate in so far as they are readily compre- hensible to the grammaticallyelect-who.The question is whether speaker or writer has selected those word symbols which most effectively and efficiently communicatehis ideas and has ar- ranged them in the most effective and efficient manner. As the great majority of people resort to various books of etiquette for authoritativeinformationon correctsocial conduct. Often language serves as a shibboleth.

pronounced[SIvarI].Mere rules of correctnesscan- not be relied upon.for by appeal- ing to the authorityof usage a constructioncould be defendedwhich on certain logical grounds might be condemned-for example. Manualsof correctEnglishare codificationsof language etiquette just as etiquette books are codificationsof rules of conduct.with the judge. a differ- ent standardfor every listener: isn't may be as socially inexpedient in one language situation as ain't in another. or even mere personal preference. And just as the criteriaof correctnessin social conduct are based on a number of complicated social attitudes.with the pronunciation [Sarivarr]is not only sociallyinexpedientbut decidedlybad manners. to respond to the proposalof a charivari. Yet for all its absurdi- ties correctEnglish is of vital importance. The difficultyof determiningthe appropriateusage for each lan- guage situation is often considerable. in effect.there was some possibility of agreement. The criteria of correctnessin language vary. Every individual must develop a sensitivity to what is linguistically appropriateto each situation.only that is correct which is felt or believed to be correct. mainly because of certain habitual approaches . But when usage was acknowledged-but not consistently accepted-as a criterion. The teachermust distinguishbetween these functionsof language and apply in each situationonly those criteriawhich are appropriate to appeal to formallogic. This means.since there was little contact with the realities of language itself. The only absolute standard of correctness in language is the hearer'sor reader'ssense of linguistic propriety. so the cri- teria of correctnessin language have been based on a variety of attitudes toward language. And to do this he must be consciousof the several functions of language. A few exampleswill illustrate that this may not always be so simple as it sounds.any possibility of uniformitydisappeared.618 COLLEGE ENGLISH grammarsand handbooksfor authoritative informationon correct conductin language. the undeniably widespreaduse of is being built by good writers and speakers despite the logical objection to it. So long as these criteriawere based principallyupon analogy with the classicallanguages. therefore. It is an easy--and often extremely unjust-means of forming a superficialestimate of an individual.

. the formal absurdity of you as a second person singular nominative pronoun is simply ignored. p. but no one understands the phrase as meaning he alone had a penny.. (Consider. 1937." or simply ignore the construction.) But other equally common constructions are attacked because of some logical flaw in them: These kind is condemned because these is plural. And that logic is often extremely difficult to analyze." Atlantic Monthly. Yet the purist contends that the formal flaw in these constructions impedes communication. 334). 49): "I sometimes go for weeks without coming upon a single correct specimen . CRITERIA OF CORRECTNESS 619 which have been developed on the basis of analogy with Latin or respect for a certain superficial formal logic. if that notion were intended. Jes- persen's extended discussions of the relationships he calls "junction" and "nexus. (Make sure and get away are called idioms. But certainly the speaker who uses the construction feels kind to be a collective just as definitely as he feels people to be one in these people.. The purists love to bemoan the prevalence of this construction." But is Follett justified in stating that "the thinking behind .") In those instances where a formally illogical con- struction is indubitably correct the purist must in desperation fall back on the term "idiom. It is a dangerous fallacy to assume that the logic which underlies the communication of ideas is necessarily identical with the super- ficial logic which is concerned only with the formal aspects of words or syntax. January. 1939. Flynn in the New Republic. Wilson Follett writes ("The State of the Language. alone would be used. p. the sentence is clearly at fault"? Flynn wants to . for example. His habitual approach pre- vents him from applying the criterion of comprehensibility to the constructions. kind singular. He only had a penny is condemned because of the "misplaced" only. In such a sentence as "He made one of the most sweeping and devastating assaults upon the bad practices of labor and subcon- tractors and dealers that has ever been leveled against any public evil" (John T. July 26. Grammar is logical only so far as it succeeds in analyzing the logic implicit in the language it is describing. objection is made to the number of has on the ground that its sub- ject is that whose antecedent is the plural assaults. A few more elaborate applications of the criterion may be added here.

considering his age. since historically to is not a part of the infinitive... nonsense (John B. But is it so invari- ably ambiguous that it deserves to be dogmatically condemned? Some entirely respectable stock expressions are nothing more than dangling participles: strictly speaking. the Washington Bridge can be seen in all its glory. geh-schnell-en.620 COLLEGEENGLISH indicate that there has been a very sweeping and devastating as- sault. but it does. Such an analysis will hardly make possible a neat diagram of the sentence. He draws a parallel between to quickly go and al-rapide-ler. And.. though there may be just as legitimate objection to . But there are many con- structions besides these which are quite unambiguous-in fact. he naturally makes his verb singular to agree with the singular idea. speaking of.. since he has in mind a single assault. explain the underlying logic of a sentence which is perfectly comprehensible and at least moderately effective. owing to is now called a preposition. But rhetorically there may sometimes be legitimate objection to the construction. of course. I think. for example. it should be con- demned as bad rhetoric rather than as bad syntax. But a mere intensive like very does not possess sufficient force to convey his meaning. Opdycke's fan- tastic discussion in Get It Right. so that he is not really writing of one of several." The logical objection to the split infinitive is. he hesitates to use an unqualified superlative and write "He made the most sweep- ing and devastating assault . but. and no doubt it often is. the dangling construction which has no formal relation- ship to the rest of the sentence is often condemned on the ground that it is ambiguous. being a somewhat cautious journalist. Similarly." To suggest that there is even the possi- bility of a momentary ambiguity here is as absurd as to insist that a double negative makes an affirmative." He feels he has achieved his pur- pose by using the forceful most qualified by the formula one of whose function is to change the superlative from absolute to relative. ir-celeriter-e [p. When the dangling construction is ambiguous. per- fectly clear and less awkward than the alternative "correct" con- struction: "Driving down Riverside Drive. And there are a number of other constructions which might better be treated as matters of style than as "bad grammar. He probably has no other similar as- saults specifically in mind. 174]).

CRITERIA OF CORRECTNESS 621 the failure to split (see Fowler's intelligent and amusing discussion in his Dictionaryof ModernEnglish Usage). where further illustrationsmay be found of what may happen as a result of attempting to write by rule. is on what the whole matter hinges. "Prepositionat End. as in Give it to he.Some- times a prepositionat the end is rhetoricallybad-and sometimes the failureto put it there resultsin even worserhetoric: "The ques- tion of an equal repartitionof the cost of reparation. only.) In "Who did you give it to?" the whois not only perfectly unambiguousbut quite expected. Simply to state dogmatically that a dangling constructionis bad will not convince him. Tract XIV. (It might be mentioned in passing that apparently Shakespearewould not even have felt it as unexpected. of course." in Societyfor Pure well as of the interest and reimbursementof capital invested. a momentary con- fusion may result. The use of the formally appropriatepronounis rarely necessary to the comprehensibilityof the sentence. When the formally im- proper form is unexpected. W. to throw out entirely all the proscriptionsand pre- . because of the unexpectednessof the form and not because of any possible ambiguity. and the etymology of the wordpreposition.Therearemany more. So there is no possible basis for condemning the construction on the ground of incomprehensibility. In these illustrative examples I have attempted to apply the criterion of comprehensibilityto a few of the constructionscom- monly condemnedin the orthodoxgrammar-books. Are we. The same thing may be said for the no-preposition-at-the-endrule which is based on the analogy of Latin. He has used it too often without any resulting ambiguity to be easily convincedthat it is an essentially bad construction.which are listed as "wrong"or "bad"because they violate logic or analogy or because they "are not clear. then. Fowler in a brief article.) The goal of ef- fective expression can be more readily achieved if the student is made to see that a particulardangling constructionhe has used is less effective than another constructionwould be." It would be well for the teacher to apply the criterionof comprehensibility to each proscribed usage and determine for himself whether it causes a genuine interferencewith communication. however." (The exampleis quoted by H.

educated Americanwould deny that the classificationis accurate. It becomes the duty of the teacher. for it is a unit which can be spotted as easily as an oath. its essential . and they are certainly few.conclusive evidence of ill-breeding. and the rest have helped to create a general conviction that there is a right and a wrongin language just as surely as there is in mathematics. The would-be despotism of the lesser grammarians. no! For some of them have stuck. on the other hand. Despite its artificiality. cultural. can be recognizedonly by those who retain an elementary ability to parse and who can pay attention to the syntax as well as to the sense. and that the sociallyimportantpart of the communityobservesthe Professor Curmeaptly labels them. And here such an excellent study as Marckwardtand Walcott's Facts aboutCurrentEnglish Usage does not help very much. "Ain't you got nothing at all?" is two syllables shorter. whereasone can be a perfect Nazi.the second with relative abandon. Accusative who. more emphatic. But ain't I is much more dangerousto use. and again the label is certainlyaccurate. For the scholars on whose work that book is based are guilty of a demo- cratic approach which the prescriptive grammariansare quite in- nocent of. is far more absolute than that of any political dictator. A century and a half of dogmatic insistence on correctnesshas made of language a touchstone for determining whether another person may be admitted to our social. Who as an object at the beginning of a sentence is also labeled colloquialEnglish. So it is only fair that the youngsters from the slums should know that the language spoken by the mother and father they are supposed to honor is consideredby the best people to be hopelesslyvulgar and illiterate. or professional circle. it is expedient to use the first very circumspectly. its false foundations. and quite as clear as "Haven't you anything at all?" But in certain circles the former would be unpardonable.622 COLLEGE ENGLISH scriptionswhich have for so many years been so religiouslytaught? Alas. for they believe that even the most careful user of English may slip.then.and no one who has listened carefully to the casual speech of the average. intelligent. Marckwardtand Walcott list ain't I as colloquialEnglish. to point out that althoughboth ain't I and accusa- tive who are colloquialEnglish.

It is generallyreferredto as an omnibusand may best be understood by direct examination. From such a statement of length and content the term "omnibus" begins to take form.short stories (one written by a masterof execrableEnglish. with somethinglike forty-seven mistakes to the page). instruc- tion in English might be relieved of much of the arbitrarinessand unreasonablenessthat make so many students dislike it. Much of the confusion. And in time. two is a convenient. Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus. If the teacher of English would realizethis and make it clearto his students.hesitant. in discussionsof propriety in lan- guage arises from the failure to apply appropriatecriteria in de- terminingthe status of the disputed construction. perhaps. THE COLLEGE OMNIBUS A.literary criticism. . But this function of language should be understood for what it is and for the harm it has done in making people self- conscious. In its vast circumferenceof 1.letters. The teacher may at least release the student from some of his hesitancy by pointing out exactly what importancecorrectnessdoes have and by attempting to rank the incorrect usages in terms of their relative social inexpediency. travel. even an indispensablemeans of judging others. Hardy's The Return of the Native. B.o99 pages it contains autobiography. It is IA member of the committee of three which manages the English department of Texas Technological College. the for- mal and the informalessay. and poetry to the extent of nearly a hundredpages. portraitsand charactersketches. then. It denotes a book which has everything. THE COLLEGEOMNIBUS 623 snobbishness. Here is Exhibit I. the appreciation of this etiquette function of cor- rectness would make for a more intelligent attitude toward lan- guage. history. and unimaginativein their speech. CUNNINGHAMI I have before me samples of an amorphousgiant which has re- cently sprung up for use in the college Freshman English course. biography.