“Bad Grammar is Slovenly”? – Milroy


What is the central contention of this essay?

Milroy discusses the idea that bad grammar is, in fact, not slovenly at all, as he argues that different or non-standard grammar usage comes as a result of a variety of social situations and contexts. He points out that so-called ungrammatical constructions actually follow rules that the native speaker uses unconsciously, and thus the construction is grammatically correct. Finally he argues that well-educated people also use non-standard grammar forms, which means that it isn’t slovenly, as well-educated people would actively try to use standard, ‘good’ grammar.

What examples does the author use?

“Who am I speaking to?” vs. “To whom am I speaking?”

The first example was used by an educated speaker, who has seemingly disregarded the rule of ‘no preposition at the end of a sentence’. This is an example of where rules are often confused, lost or ignored by modern-day speakers, to the extent that the non-standard form becomes widely used with little contention. As this error is regularly made, it implies that it is unclear which rule applies where.

“Me and Andy went out to the park”.

This was used by a 16 year old boy, and this is a mistake often criticised as the wrong “pronoun case is used inside a conjoined phrase”. Many are so conscious of this Latin-based rule that often they hyper-correct and use “I” where “me” is actually correct. Milroy explains that with prescriptive rules (such as “I” versus “me), there is often such a difference between what speakers believe to be correct and what they actually do, whereas with descriptive rules there is no subjection to violation and they are not part of our conscious knowledge of language – rather, they are known unconsciously (such as knowing that you would say “I went to the park” instead of “me went to the park”).

What other theorists does the author refer to?

Milroy refers to “one linguist” who describes “described linguistic prescriptivism as the last open door to discrimination”. However it is clear that Milroy disagrees with him as he explains that languages that aren’t English use rules that would logically make sense in our language, but aren’t used. He uses the example of “yous” rather than “you”, and points out that this usage would make sense in other languages, so it cannot be described as linguistically impoverished, as languages and dialects simply vary in the “meaning distinctions they encode” regardless of their social status.

List six quotations from the essay and explain why they are important.

“The real difference between these forms is stylistic: both are good English sentences in appropriate contexts.”

This shows Milroy’s belief that all grammar is good, or at least not bad, and that the difference in the two sentences is merely who is speaking them; standard or non-standard grammar is unimportant in his opinion. This highlights his point that it is only the social situation and context that affects the grammar, and thus it shouldn’t be judged.

“Latin had a particular prestige… but as we shall see shortly, English rules are very different from Latin rules”

He emphasises the fact that English grammatical rules are based on Latin rules, even though English is a Germanic language and therefore shouldn’t use Latin rules as it makes no sense to do so.

“But complicated as this rule has become, it still needs some fine tuning.”

Referring to the use of a subject in a sentence, Milroy is showing how even now our language is evolving, and the rules are constantly varying or changing, and so older rules will either stop applying or need to be changed. This quote could also link to Jean Aitchison’s “Crumbling Castle” parody, as he is saying that even now language has been standardized, it is not perfect and so there never was a “castle” in the first place.

“It is the low social status of these speakers, indexed by details of their language use…”

With ‘low status speakers’ there is often an assumption made that any grammar they use in a non-standard way is automatically bad, and they are assumed to belong to a lower or less-educated class. Milroy has pointed out that even well-educated speakers use non-standard grammar forms.

“A particularly large number of complaints about these patterns of pronoun use [I versus me] are received by the BBC.”

This shows how influential the media is and how important it has become to our everyday life that it is believed that the grammar they use is incorrect. It also demonstrates the widespread beliefs about grammar rules, and how important they are still perceived to be.

“Bad grammar is a cover term to describe a number of different kinds of English expressions.”

i.e. there is no such thing as bad grammar. There is only non-standard or ‘different’ grammar that provides a variety of expression in the English Language.

Do you agree with the author’s contentions?

I do agree with his contentions as it is true that many of our rules don’t have much effect anymore, and don’t matter much if they’re wrong – to an extent. The examples given of me versus I and where the preposition goes at the end of a sentence both show that a sentence will still make sense even if it doesn’t follow grammatical rules as it is still easy to understand what someone’s saying, despite it technically not making sense. As Milroy points out that there are educated speakers who use non-standard forms, it is difficult to argue that ‘bad’ grammar shows ill-educated people.



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