Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


You can’t write that…8 myths about correct English

Laura Aull

Picture a boxing ring, English on one side, diversity on the other, and you have a basic version of the history of written English in schools. English and diversity might otherwise be great friends, but they are continually pitted against one another in educational opportunity structures.

In the 18th century, for example, the shift from classical languages to English in UK and US university curricula meant more students were prepared for postsecondary education. Yet more access to the system did not mean the system changed: it was correct English, according to the narrow usage preferences of a small part of the population, that was permitted in universities.

In the 19th century, the expansion of higher education likewise supported greater English literacy. Yet higher education continued to support homogenous written English, as early college entrance exams make clear.

In the 20th century, the use of standardized testing promised higher literacy rates across students and schools, but examination topics and criteria, again, narrowly defined written English.

In the 21st century, reports and headlines represent the same fight: Make written English homogenous, they suggest, and literacy will flourish. Allow diverse English usage, and literacy is corrupted.

I hear similar conflicts when I speak to students and friends about what counts as correct writing. Many people write and read diverse English but think correct writing is homogenous. Surely, they think, there is a standard out there that must be followed; ideally, we enforce that standard when we encounter written English.

Over many years, these observations have made me think about what we give up when we understand written English this way–when we operate in what I call language regulation mode. One thing we give up is added language knowledge, because in language regulation mode, we learn to hunt for errors in homogenous English rather than to recognize patterns in the diverse English that people actually use. We learn language regulation, rather than language exploration.

To understand how we got here, and what to do instead, my new book You can’t write that brings together history, headlines, and educational and linguistic research to address eight myths about correct English. The myths range from the relatively old (there is only one correct way to write) to the relatively new (you won’t get a job if you can’t write correctly). The book describes each myth according to its context, its consequences, and what is closer to the truth—what research tells us about linguistic patterns in written English and how people learn them.

The contexts and consequences show why, after living with myths for over a century, it’s hard to understand or talk about written English according to its remarkable and valuable fluidity.

Each myth’s “closer to the truth” offers an alternative: celebrating what is possible when we recognize the value of diverse writing. In recognizing shared purposes and diverse linguistic patterns characterizing written English, we bring literacy and diversity together.

We learn more about the similar aims of all written English—cohesion, connection, focus, stance, and usage—and the range of linguistic patterns that enable us to write in varied situations and relationships. We see written English as a wide continuum with overlapping and distinct patterns, sliding to and fro between interpersonal, informal, personal texting between peers and informational, formal, impersonal research articles between strangers. The table below represents this continuum, where, for instance, cohesion is achieved through patterns from emojis in a text message to conjunctive adverbs in research articles.

                      Continuum Goals Continuum Patterns
Cohesion😃 ← → however To make writing hang together, writers use emojis, moves, and other transitions
Connectionu in? ← → We conducted trials To address themselves and others, writers use pronouns, citations, and other references
Focusain’t no way  ← → Rapid industrialization To show focus, writers use different types, and proportions, of nouns and verbs
Stancetotallllly ← → perhaps To show doubt, certainty, and attitude, writers use boosters, hedges, and adjectives
UsageYES!!!! ← → Indeed, To follow usage norms, writers use several shared grammatical structures, and a range of conventions and usage preferences  

This table shows several remarkable qualities of written English: its dynamic fluidity; its responsiveness to genres and relationships; the importance of both similarities and distinctions across different uses.

Why is it that such analysis isn’t part of how we think about correct writing or how to learn it? Because myths. And because myths, literacy and diversity don’t work together as they might.

Let’s consider just one of the myths to illustrate: Myth 3, You can’t write that and be smart (Or, Writing indicates natural intelligence).

We inherited this myth early in the history of widespread written English, through mid-19th century schools and tests. Leading myth-makers included Horace Mann, designer of common school tests and lover of phrenology; Carl Brigham and Cyril Burt, both believers in timed writing scores as tools for sorting and ranking people; and Milo Hillegas, author of writing scales suggesting all writing should be subject to the same two-dimensional criteria. With their help, Myth 3 formed and promised that correct written English was the best toolfor measuring innate ability and ranking and selecting people accordingly.

Then as now, the consequences are dire. This myth takes for granted that timed written tests can measure intelligence, and it weaponizes the use of timed writing scores to decide who is deserving and able. Those who are receive educational opportunities. Those who are not receive less.

And when it turns out that a lot of students aren’t, in fact, deserving or able according to narrow writing testing criteria, or that certain races and classes are disproportionately unable according to test scores, the students are to blame rather than the tests.

In other words, the consequences of this myth include limiting how we understand intelligence and ability, trusting tests instead of teachers, and trusting test results as indications of what people can do and write.

Meanwhile, closer to the truth is that uniform tests and scales fail to value language fluidity. They tell us a two-dimensional story about written English–a story in which writing contexts do not matter, and a writer will write more or less the same way regardless of the writing task, conditions, or audience. They imply a hierarchy, in which some writing is always best, no matter what.

We need awareness of timeworn myths like these. And, we need a new metaphor for writing: a continuum, of a range of shared purposes and norms, as well as distinct patterns.

A continuum of written English allows us to respond to the range of informal and formal, personal and impersonal, interpersonal and informational writing our world demands within and far beyond narrow tests. A continuum allows us to see the ways that written English of many kinds is systematic, meaningful, similar, and distinct. It allows a fuller range of writing to benefit from our natural ability to recognize language patterns and our natural curiosity about language. It allows a fuller range of writing to be part of our conscious writing knowledge.

You can’t write that…8 myths about correct English illustrates that in exploring diverse writing patterns, rather than hunting errors in pursuit of homogeneity, we gain more fair and knowledgeable ways to think and talk about written English. We experience the varied wonders of language, and we learn more about it, too.

You Can’t Write That by Laura Aull

About The Author

Laura Aull

Laura Aull is an Associate Professor and Writing Program Director at the University of Michigan, USA, where she teaches English linguistics and trains university writing instructor...

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