In Chapters 4 and 5 we related questions of correctness to variation in language use according to social factors such as region, class and sex of speaker. Now we look more closely at variation according to occasion of use.
Peter Trudgill has made a useful distinction between two different types of ‘mistake’ which are the subject of prescriptive comment. The first involves linguistic elements which have a regular distribution; the second concerns ‘features which are quite natural to all native speakers, and are a part of Standard English, as well as other dialects, but which many people still feel rather uncomfortable about’ (1975:42). Thus compare the following alternatives:
it’s me: it is I
it was him that did it: it was he who did it
The first sentence in each pair would often be said to be a ‘mistake’, although most standard speakers (whether they are conscious of it or not) would almost certainly choose those sentence types rather than their alternatives when they are speaking informally, and would feel that such a choice was more ‘natural’. Thus some notions of what is ‘correct’ seem to be associated not with the social distribution of linguistic variants, but with their distribution according to occasion of use; the choice appropriate to the more formal occasion is usually said to be the ‘correct’ form of the language. It is this second notion of correctness with which we are concerned here. We may note, first of all, that in some way a respect for high standards of literacy is involved; the second sentence in each pair is distinctly ‘bookish’. Furthermore, there seems to be an assumption that written English ‘sets the standard’ for a uniquely correct form of spoken English.
Both of these attitudes to correctness have emerged during discussion in earlier chapters. In this chapter and the next, we look systematically at their implications.