Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English

By James Milroy; Lesley Milroy | Go to book overview

4

GRAMMAR AND SPEECH

4.1

Introduction

This chapter is about the grammar of speech, and it continues naturally from the topic of Chapter 3, in which the formal and functional differences between speech and writing were discussed. Having noted that one of the less fortunate consequences of standardisation is the application of the norms of writing to the grammar of speech, we begin by discussing the nature of ‘grammar’ and pass on to consider some misapplications of prescriptive norms to spoken English. In Section 4.3 the dimension of contextual variability in speech is considered, again bearing in mind the effect on speech of the relatively inflexible norms of prescriptive written grammar. As non-standard English is (almost by definition) spoken rather than written, the discussion is then extended to the grammaticality of non-standard English. Until recently there has been little research on the grammar of speech, and the examples used here are selective. A fuller account is now available in Miller and Weinert (1998).

Grammar, in the popular view (and this is based on the standard ideology), is believed to consist of a number of ‘rules’ that are imposed on usage from outside, for example, by some authority on correctness. These rules are largely a set of prohibitions against particular expressions (such as different to) that are recurrent and persistent. The grammar of a language or dialect is actually something much more wide-ranging than this. It is a complex and abstract system inherent in the language and not imposed by overt prescription. All native speakers have implicit knowledge of the grammar of English: it is this knowledge that enables speakers to use and understand their language. Amongst other things, this knowledge enables the speaker to judge what sentences are possible in the language. For instance, native speakers intuitively know that Set 1 (below) consists of grammatical sequences and that Set 2 consists of ungrammatical sequences:

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