hypercorrection

Hypercorrection | Tom Bloor | June 27th, 2000

Simon Cole wrote:

*Pardon I. This liberal use of the vulgar/vernacular (for emphasis) is all Barry Humphries' fault. I recommend avoiding his corrupting influence at all costs.

Simon,

Isn't 'pardon I' a satirical take on middle class hypercorrection?

Tom Bloor

Re: Hypercorrection | Rob Salter | June 27th, 2000

Isn't 'pardon I' a satirical take on middle class hypercorrection?

Since coming back to North America I have become aware of this practice of correcting "bad grammar" whenever possible. I was watching ER and heard a mother doing other-initiated other-correction with her daughter by saying its "whom not who" in some exchange about bedtime or something like that. My dad (a retired and somewhat oddball theoretical linguist) and I started making jokes about how great it will be when English progresses back to having more case distinctions. We will be freed from the tyranny of "where to" and "where from" and all these other nasty things that are polluting the speech of middle class linguistically hygienic speech.

Neither he nor I can wait for the day that we can say "I is whom you called" and everybody will be happy there in Hollywood!

Best,

Rob Salter

Re: Hypercorrection | Dominic Marini | June 29th, 2000

Tomas,

In a response to something written by Simon you included:

Isn't 'pardon I' a satirical take on middle class hypercorrection? (Simon had used the 'pardon I' as part of his original comment).

I found your comment strange (weird?). Could you tell me about your personal context (where your from?)? What is the middle class? What is hypercorrection?

My context: I ask because in an earlier exchange, several months ago (?), about "correct English" I sensed a lot of anxiety, people dismissing the notion immediately, being almost aggressive. I wonder if this is a British issue? Are people there particularly sensitive about it because of class system overtones? I noticed a similar reaction from Australian teachers. Socially and politically at least, it's not such a "red button" issue in Montreal, Canada, where I'm from (where the issue is do you speak English or not), so I don't "get" a lot of the comments.

Thanks

Dominic Marini

Re: Hypercorrection | John Bartrick | July 2nd, 2000

Dominic,

I think it IS a big issue for a number of reasons. Firstly there are major decisions to be made about what to teach, what to include in a syllabus. Then you must decide what is acceptable output from learners. I think the concept of "communicative competence" means that as teachers we are primarily concerned with the successful transmission of a message and secondly with how "correctly" the message is written or spoken. Obviously there are conventions that have to be followed if a language is to serve its purpose. However, on a personal level, when in the classroom I find myself constantly saying to myself "I'll let that one go" if I feel the fluency which is gained by not interrupting to correct serves a greater goal.

In Britain this issue has taken on heavy political, indeed, party political, overtones. In "Interaction in the Language Classroom" (Longman:1996) van Lier shows how the issue of "proper" language use has been used as an indicator of "decent" citizenship (see pp 84-5).

The position van Lier argues against is summarized in a quotation from a leading Conservative party government minister during the 1980s who said "we've allowed so many standards to slip ...teachers weren't bothering to teach kids to spell and to punctuate properly ...if you allow standards to slip ...people turn up filthy at school ...and once you lose standards then there's no imperative to stay out of crime" (Norman Tebbit, Radio 4, 1985).

Extreme it may sound, but this was the voice of a minister representing a government with a massive parliamentary majority. I think this highlights the sociopolitical consequences of our actions as teachers of English and should lead us to reflect on what it is we, as individuals, regard as "proper" or "correct". This also ties in with the points made by Tom Bloor in his mailing to the list on 8/5/2000 concerning "minority English."

Bye for now,

John Bartrick

Re: Hypercorrection | Dominic Marini | July 3rd, 2000

John,

Thanks for your explanation of the British political scene. Given that a government minister would suggest that poor spelling was a first step on the road to crime, I can begin to see why "correct English" is a hot political topic.

As you write, when constructing an syllabus you must decide what to include and exclude. And once you've done that you may find yourself letting things "slip by" in the classroom. This is not necessarily a betrayal of the syllabus. Teachers may decide to let accuracy occasionally slip by when fluency (or creativity, or student's engagement in the material, or) is the goal. If the teacher is doing this for a reason and is aware that they are doing so it may be a good classroom strategy to implement part of the syllabus.

Still the issue of standards remains. "Obviously there are conventions which have to be followed if a language is to serve its purpose." One question that needs to addressed is at what point is any dialect incomprehensible, and to whom? I (Canadian) have been unable to understand an old man in a village in the north of England, and an EFL teacher from the Southern US! (Absolutely nothing - I knew she was a teacher from the context I met her in).

As an EFL teacher trying to help students gain some communicative competence in English we must also admit that communication is a two way street. It depends on the expectation of the wider community that the student wants to join, or at least function in. If that community has certain standards it is incumbent on us to teach up to those standards so that they can function. If many members of a community respect "correct English," shouldn't we teach it students, to empower them?

Dominic Marini

Re: Hypercorrection | Tom Bloor | July 11th, 2000

Dear Dominic,

I waited for the verdict on staff postings before replying. So here is my response to your question to me (below).

We have talked about related issues on this list before, but perhaps it was before you joined or perhaps the discussion was insufficiently explicit - as in the case of my cryptic reference to hypercorrection.

Hypercorrection is a widely used term in linguistics; I don't know who coined it, but I first came across it in American publications. It refers to usage that results from a wish to be 'correct' (to conform to some perceived norm) but which misses the target. Thus, people in England and Wales who frequently pronounce English without initial aspirates (i.e. in lay terms: 'drop their aitches') may attempt to adjust this tendency towards the prescribed RP practice and overcompensate by putting in /h/ not only in 'house ' and 'harbour' but also in words like 'all' or 'answer'. There is no value judgment implicit in the term 'hypercorrection'. Obviously, it happens a lot in L2, and people are liable to hypercorrect whenever they attempt to use an accent or dialect other than their own. If I were to make an attempt to talk like a North American (or like many other English speakers with a so-called rhotic accent), and thus include /r/ sounds in certain positions where I don't normally do so, eg in words like 'born', I might well produce an /r/ where the target community would not use it (eg in 'fawn').

Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics says:

'hypercorrection /.../: overgeneralisation of a rule in language use.. For example, the rule that an adverb modifies a verb may be over-extended and used in cases where an adjective would normally be used, as in *'This meat smells freshly' rather than 'This meat smells fresh'.

The fraught area of subject and object pronouns ('Jim and I' versus 'me and Jim') and related issues is touched on in FND unit 6 pp 162 and 173ff. Also see the Grammar of English file Unit 1; Bloor & Bloor 1995 pages 33 and 35. But as for the Barry Humphries issue, which started all this: the fictional characters created by BH (Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson) are two grotesque Australian stereotypes: vulgar, bad-taste, etc, and in Edna's case, highly pretentious. (If Barry were not Australian himself someone would surely have shot him by now for producing such caricatures). Edna has shifted over the years from a normal housewife ('Everage', get it?- with a husband called Norm) to a superstar, but she still exhibits the stereotypical speech patterns of her origins. Nobody says 'Pardon I', but Edna would certainly say, 'It's a problem for Norm and I' and Humphries satirically pushes it a bit further. It's a bit like saying 'Whom exactly are you, my good man?' Hypercorrection.

There are at least two largely distinct issues in talking about correctness: correctness in L2 learning (eg accuracy versus fluency etc) and 'correctness' in L1 (dialect variation, avoidance of shibboleths, language change, etc. This discussion is about the second.

I find it hard to believe that you have never heard anyone in Canada complain about or correct another native speaker's English. You may not have noticed or thought about it, but that is a different matter. Of course, I appreciate that English versus French issue must loom much larger than these petty intra-language quibbles (I've read my Lambert). Also, you are no doubt spared the attentions of the self-appointed organisation, The Queen's English Society, a bunch of loonies who devote their lives to criticising what they perceive as bad English in the media and elsewhere. And John Bartrick's mention of the appalling Norman (now Lord) Tebbitt sums up just how dangerous this view of language can be. Needless to say, QES and Tebbitt know little or nothing about linguistics and generally talk nonsense. They certainly have their counterparts in other parts of the world, though. My impression has always been that the US was even more given to this preoccupation than the UK, but I could be wrong. The phenomenon isn't restricted to the English language, of course. It's probably a universal.

I'll refer you to your Canadian colleague on this list, Robert Salter. Rob recently wrote:

'Since coming back to North America I have become aware of this practice of correcting "bad grammar" whenever possible. I was watching ER and heard a mother doing other-initiated other-correction with her daughter by saying its "whom not who" in some exchange about bedtime or something like that'.

Next you'll be telling me that there are no social classes in Canada, Dominic. (Come in, Rob!).

So preoccupation with and suspicion of 'correctness' is not a British phenomenon - far from it. It is a (socio) linguistic and educational issue with two sides: the linguistically aware (John Bartrick, Richard Salter, Murray Keeler, William Labov, et al) and the linguistically ignorant (Norman Tebbit, the Queen's English Society, et al).

(See classic studies by the great American sociolinguist William Labov for the significance of individual variants of the postvocalic /r/ versus zero type: eg Labov W 1966 The Social Stratification of English in New York City Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics; Labov W 1972 'The study of language in it social context': in Pride J B & Janet Holmes (eds) _Sociolinguistics - Penguin (Pelican Books): 180-202. Or for a general approach to the issue of prescriptivism (I've mentioned these before) see Milroy J & Milroy L 1985 Authority in Language: Investigating Prescription and Standardisation London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Bex T 1996 Variety in Written English: Texts in Society - Society in Texts London: Routledge).

This is a fairly simplistic account of the issues, but language is complex and life is short.

Best wishes,

Tom Bloor

Re: Hypercorrection | Rob Salter | July 11th, 2000

I am in a hurry but I wanted to add a couple things.

I find it hard to believe that you have never heard anyone in Canada complain about or correct other native speaker's English. You may not have noticed or thought about it, but that is a different matter. When I was in high school in Canada, I was out collecting cans for a food drive. I was with my English teacher and some classmates. I said something like "there are less of you than us" to which the teacher jumped in and corrected me by saying something like "I hope you mean fewer." I noticed it, but I doubt anybody else did who was there. That was 13 years ago, but it left its mark.

There seems to be a small movement here toward "correct" English in Canada. My mom had some newspaper clippings for me when I got back to Canada of a prescriptive linguist who has set up a hotline in order to give out the "right answers" to grammar questions. But in no way does this compare those loonies Tom mentions above. Even reading about QES makes my blood boil.

I am off to Ottawa today. There will be plenty of French spoken there. The issue of "correctness" has been written about in regard to Canadian French. I found a book about French spoken in Canada. I found it in the laundry room of my dad's apartment, but I forget the title. It talked about "correct French" and the battle to keep it "pure" and other such sadly familiar topics. If anybody is interested I'll get that reference.

I must jump in the car.

Best,

Rob Salter

Re: Hypercorrection | Dominic Marini | July 26th, 2000

Tom,

Sorry for not getting back to you before now. Trouble always travels in packs. First my computer crashed, then I got busy at work, now I'm grading exams. I can't wait for summer.

Thanks very much for the detailed response to my question about hypercorrection and the suggested reading list regarding variation and correctness.

Now that I know (perhaps?) what you are talking about let me ask a question. I remember a conversation with a teacher friend of mine who was interested in researching children in Montreal whose parents are neither native English speakers nor French speakers. She's noticed that these children invent new adverbs by simply adding "ly" to adjectives or nouns to create words that are understandable but don't exist in standard English. She felt this was "wrong". I also remember a teaching assistant at university commenting that local students used these constructions (sorry I can't think of an example right now) in their essays. Is this adding "ly" also a case of hypercorrection?

Of course, as you reply, people do correct each other, but my point, in my previous email, is that this does not have to be negative. Why can't people (native speakers or SL learners) be corrected constructively? Perhaps I'm reading too much between the lines but I have a sense that you see this issue of correctness and correction as always negative and divisive. My original question on the subject included a tentative suggestion that in the UK perhaps language variation is used as a means of keeping people "in their place" or at least to identify their place, both geographic and social (Thus the reference to the role of dialect in the famous "English class system"). By the way, I looked up the homepage of the Queen's English Society, whom you categorize as loony, and noticed that "The Society is a corporate member of the New Cavendish Club near Marble Arch, and holds its meetings there". Does this mean that they are a bunch of toffs?

However, in contrast, I would venture to say that, in Canada, learning "standard" English is empowering. This is particularly true for children of immigrants. Unlike the UK, Canada has a large, fluctuating population of "new Canadians" (at least 1/3 of Canadians, or their parents, were born abroad) many of whom do not speak English (51% of pupils in the Vancouver public school system go through an introductory two year ESL program), but want to. Even though they will grow up "main language English"/"native English" speakers at some point they may want to learn other (perhaps more formal?) variations than those they've acquired from their environment. Robert Slater's report of " a prescriptive linguist who has set up a hotline in order to give out the 'right answers' to grammar questions" supports the view that people are voluntarily seeking out guidance about how to express themselves. Why can't this also apply to native English speakers?

As well, we are socially distant enough from the UK that ridiculing overly formal speech or the speech of "upper class twits" (Monty Python) is not part of indigenous humour.

Far from claiming there are no social classes in Canada I asked you what you meant by middle class because that often used and abused term has lost its meaning as individuals exhibit various class traits simultaneously. What is a factory worker who owns her own home as well as other's homes and has enough savings in bonds that she could retire early? Is she a worker, landlord or rentier? In Montreal (sorry to be so parochial) she could be either and you wouldn't know by how she spoke.

Dominic Marini

Re: Hypercorrection | Rob Salter | July 26th, 2000

Dear Dominic,

I have read your post and replied to a few things, mostly about things "Canadian", because I really can't agree with how you are depicting sociolinguistic variation in Canada.

However, in contrast, I would venture to say that, in Canada, learning "standard" English is empowering.

The looney group Tom mentioned is not about "standard" English. I think that is what you are implying here.

This is particularly true for children of immigrants.

The most recent study taken by the city of Toronto has shown that race is still the major factor in upward mobility in Toronto. This could prompt the question "Why learn English?"

Unlike the UK, Canada has a large, fluctuating population of "new Canadians" (at least 1/3 of Canadians, or their parents, were born abroad) many of whom do not speak English...

I have never been to the UK, but I suspect there are a lot of folks there whose first language is not English. Furthermore, it is really odd to say "Canada" because most of Canada is either unilingual English or unilingual French. Three big cities absorb the arrival of the majority of non-native speakers of English. Those three cities combined are not the size of London, England. It might be a very disconcerting experience if you look at the educational goals of the teachers of ESL in British Columbia. In Ontario, which has the largest population of new arrivals to Canada, there is a systematic "common sense approach" that is taking ESL out of elementary and secondary classrooms.

Robert Salter's report of " a prescriptive linguist who has set up a hotline in order to give out the 'right answers' to grammar questions"...

According to the person who started the hotline, the majority of users of that hotline are secretaries whose first language is English. The person who started the hotline says that the secretaries who call usually studied English grammar in school but their bosses didn't. The secretaries call to make sure that their corrections are grammatically correct because they feel that their bosses do not use correct grammar.

As well, we are socially distant enough from the UK that ridiculing overly formal speech or the speech of "upper class twits" (Monty Python) is not part of indigenous humour.

Canadians are not socially distant enough from anybody not to make fun of what is categorized as lower class speech in the form of hosers such as Bob and Doug. Does this make Canada an extremely elitist society in which a people make fun of those who are not fortunate enough to be born into a few families in Toronto and Montreal? The economic elite of Canada is much smaller than that of the United States or that of the UK. In the 1970s 12 families owned half of the shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange. That's a closed shop!! I have often thought that one of the reasons few people make fun of the elites in Canada is that most Canadians are afraid that it will come back to haunt them all too soon.

In Montreal (sorry to be so parochial) she could be either and you wouldn't know by how she spoke.

I really hope that you are not serious about this. The divisions in Canada are much clearer to many people than you have presented. Perhaps Montreal is different, but whenever I hear Pierre Trudeau and his Westmount accent I cannot mistake it for Serge Savard's acccent. Both lived in Montreal for a long long time but there can be no mistake in either English or French who is a former Prime Minister, though both are rather wealthy.

I know that there is rather attractive rhetoric about Canada, which Canadians are taught in school, but I think that it doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. The imprisonment of people of Japanese descent during and AFTER the Second World War is one example of Canada's intolerance, but then again there are so many. The conventional wisdom in Canada seems to be that Canada is so less class-based than Britain and so much less racist than the folks south of the border. Some horrible things that Canadians have inflicted on other Canadians are conveniently not discussed in much detail in schools in order to keep these appearances up. For people who read this who are not Canadian, I'll give one rather infamous example. The separation of children from their parents in First Nations communities went on into the 1970s or perhaps later (I can't remember the exact date when this was stopped) and the pressure to stop it sure didn't come from non-First Nations constituencies. Those children were taken to boarding schools to learn English, but in many cases they lost their own parents, language, and far too many other things. Hell, some of those children ended up as far away as Australia in adoptions carried out by the Canadian government. Here was the religious elite in Canada backed by politicians using public money trying to force English and a foreign culture on people who weren't even allowed to vote for most of Canada's history. Canada has its own share of loony language cops.

Sociolinguistic variation exists in Canada as it does elsewhere. It is just hard to read about it in Canada seeing as how most linguistics departments in Canada, the University of Alberta might be the only notable exception, are from the MIT tradition.

Best,

Rob

Re: Hypercorrection | Dominic Marini | July 31st, 2000

Dear Rob,

Thanks for your feedback. I now have a better understanding of why correction is such an issue.

Your points are well taken, I was writing about people living in English Canada or people who speak (or want to) English when I wrote about standard English. I was not referring to unilingual francophones in French speaking communities.

However I disagree about this :

1 You wrote:

"Canadians are not socially distant enough from anybody not to make fun of what is categorized as lower class speech in the form of hosers such as Bob and Doug."

The comic duo of Bob and Doug did not make fun of lower class speech.   First, they acted stupid, not lower class. Surely you aren't going to say that only the lower class has barbecues. Second, in their movie, "Strarge Brew" they were portrayed as still living with their parent in suburbia. Third, they became a national phenomena that mainstream Canadians identified with- not put down. So much so that expressions from the show (such as "hoser" which until then had been a local expression) were imported, across the country, into daily speech. They became national heroes.

2 You wrote:

The divisions in Canada are much clearer to many people than you have presented. Perhaps Montreal is different, but whenever I hear Pierre Trudeau and his Westmount accent I cannot mistake it for Serge Savard's acccent.   Both lived in Montreal for a long long time but there can be no mistake in either English or French who is a former Prime Minister, though both are rather wealthy.

Pierre Trudeau (former Prime Minister) has an interesting accent but cannot have a Westmount (rich Montreal neighborhood) accent. First, he didn't grow up there. He grew up in Outremount,(rich French speaking neighbourhood). He only retired to Westmount. Secondly, there is no Westmount accent. I grant that there is an Old English Montreal accent (your family has been there for generations) and that it has generational variation, but there is no distinction between those living in Westmount, NDG or Dollard (other neighborhoods).

Serge Savard is francophone- so I don't see where his English comes into this. He learnt English as an adult. He was a great hockey player, and general manager. I emailed a friend in Montreal and here's what he wrote about Savard's accent.

"Serge Savard's English is quite good: he's a pretty savvy businessman too! His accent is the accent of most French Canadians, using the same sequence of words and the same emphasis as most other French Canadians.   For instance, the "th" in the article "the" is rendered "duh." The word "think" is rendered "tink."

Serge Savard used to be General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens, but was fired. He had a really classy press conference and said, "When I took this job I knew that one day I'd be fired from it." Anyway, he had no regrets and he knew that it was just part of the game. He is rumored to be among those who may buy the team (yes they're for sale) from the Molson family."

If anything Savard supports my contention that, in Canada (or Montreal at least!) your language variant does not deny your social mobility. He's wealthier than the Prime Minister!

DM

Re: Hypercorrection | Darin Bicknell | July 31st, 2000

In Canada our current Prime Minister is a very good speaker, yet his English is riddled with problems in grammar and pronunciation. If you want an example to support your contention then look no further than Jean Chretien:

"On first arriving in Ottawa, Chrétien spoke little English. He quickly learned the language and proved to be a shrewd politician. Beginning with his service to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the mid-1960s and then to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau from 1968 to 1984, Chrétien held numerous cabinet-level posts. Chrétien's perceived approachability and captivating speaking style endeared him to many Canadians, both French and English speaking."

An example of how English Canadians became endeared is when the Progressive

Conservatives mocked his partially paralyzed face in a TV ad campaign during the election, as a result of Polio, he retorted in English...

"Unlike them I don't talk out of both sides of my mouth!"

Others are not as kind as found on this website:

All Things of Fun and Interest...

If you plan on meeting the PM, whether at a dinner engagement or press conference, you might want to learn his language. Because you never know what our leader might say next?

The Chrétien Vocabulary Guide

"Iss dar non moore jeez?"
"I con knod anzer dat quest'on."
"Autowha mast copperate."
"Dar iss non dax reref dis ear."
"Canda mast bekim drong et profer."
"Oui con ot supert seprat ism."
"Frim Brotish Columdea deux Nonva Scosha..."
"Mais bee oui mast ave reef firm?"
"I endoy une goo nid rezt."

.....Understand? It's OK, because a majority of Canadians don't either.

"Gotta love Jean eee is da man ford da future n'est pas!"

Anyhow, you can make in Canada without hyper correction it seems.

Darin

Re: Hypercorrection | Thomas Bloor | August 1st, 2000

Regarding the Jean Chretien story:

Ridicule -affectionate or otherwise- of individual politicians' pronunciation/grammar/coherence is not unique to Canada. Kennedy's Boston accent was much mimicked, as was LBJ's Texan speech. Currently comedians in Britain get a lot of mileage out of the occasionally incoherent utterances of the Deputy Prime Minister and they also imitate his northern accent; the leader of the Conservative Party is also easy to parody because of his northern accent, but the PM is mocked just as much for his posh attempt at trendy down-market colloquialism (the swinging vicar syndrome). In its early days the Queen's English Society (well-known to readers of this list) produced a pamphlet outlining its aims, which included protesting about any instance of 'bad' English used by the BBC or 'politicians (e.g. Harold Wilson)' - they actually singled him out. Wilson was the PM at that time; I think his English was par for a native-speaker with a double-first class honours degree from Oxford, but he did have a Yorkshire accent, which some people believe he deliberately exaggerated to enhance his plain-spoken man-of-the-people image. The fact that Wilson was a Labour PM may have been a factor in the GES antipathy, but he may have split the occasional infinitive.   Incidentally, like most prescriptivists, the QES claim that they do not discriminate against 'real dialect', whatever that is. I think they mean the speech of rural workers of the 19 th century.

The bizarre representation of Jean Chretien's speech cited in your email (below) is an example of an internationally widespread bit of fun, whereby playing around with phonology and orthography to produce deliberately cryptic/amusing representations misrepresents some speech variety. I have not seen it applied to individuals before, but I have seen numerous booklets such as Talk Strine (Australian); Learn Yerself Scouse (Liverpool); Arfer Tow Crate in Staffy Cheer, etc. The last title is a travesty of the native dialect of both yours truly and Dr Julian Edge, admittedly fairly impenetrable to outsiders even in its natural form; the title means: 'How to talk right (ie correctly) in Staffordshire' (that is North not South Staffordshire, where the dialect is entirely different.) The trick is to approximate the spelling to the actual phonology but, in addition, wherever possible to choose an alternative spelling for any word and even to insert breaks in words where possible.   Initial confusion is the name of the game and the reader is supposed to laugh when s/he catches onto the intended meaning. So to add to the confusion the authors of these tracts will represent as deviant what could be an entirely standard pronunciation; they do this by rendering it phonetically (eg 'wot' for 'what') or with a homophone (eg 'tide' for 'tied'). Examples in the Chretien samples below are 'Scosha' for 'Scotia", 'mais bee' for 'maybe', 'oui' for 'we', 'seprat ism' for 'separatism': these could equally well represent standard pronunciations in Canadian, British, Antipodean, or American English. (I must say, too, that I can't see how a lot of the other spellings could be said to justifiably represent pronunciations that a Francophone might produce in English: 'jeez'? 'anzer'? 'Colomdia'?   Obviously the mocker was not a phonetician.)

You see how linguistics helps us understand the games people play even if it adds nothing to the hilarity.

Best

Tom

Re: Hypercorrection | Tom Bloor | August 3rd, 2000

Dear Dominic,

Thanks for your email.

No, the example you give of the non-native children using -ly on all adverbs is probably not an example of hypercorrection though it is very similar in that it involves over-application of a linguistic rule/usage. The dictionary definition I cited is not precise enough it seems. All children acquiring a first or second language and probably all adults learning a second language over-regularize. Thus all English-L1 children go through a stage where they tend to regularize irregular verbs ('goed' for 'went'), noun plurals ('sheeps'), etc. In fact, this is a true universal. L2 speakers often do the same.

The term 'hypercorrection' implies that the speakers in question are adjusting their own usage in a failed attempt to reach a target norm. Usually this target is some kind of prescribed usage so I think that at some level the speakers in question are conscious of what they are trying to achieve (though the usage may become internalized and normal for them).

Take my favourite common case of 'you and I' versus 'you and me' (or more frequently 'me and you'). Standard English uses 'I' in subject roles and 'me' in object roles, including objects of prepositions: 'You and I can work together' but 'This is between you and me'. English Speakers who have acquired from their parents or carers in infancy the practice of using 'you and I' in both subject and object positions are following some subconscious rule about subject/object distinctions not applying to 'I' when it occurs in certain combinations, but people who grew up saying 'me and you' in all circumstances and have discovered that this is considered wrong in some instances may alter their own speech to say 'you and I' even where the standard requires 'you and me' (ie adapt to the same rule as the first group); they are hypercorrecting. The result is exactly the same in both cases but only the second involves hypercorrection since the first does not involve any kind of correction at all. It can occur in L2 when someone learns to use the correct form but then changes on the basis of some kind of rationalization to an incorrect form that would also be hypercorrection. So if the children you mentioned had acquired adverbs like 'fast' and 'hard' and then changed to 'fastly' and 'hardly' it probably would be hypercorrection, but it seems more likely that they were just overgeneralizing the -ly adverb rule from the start. I know that's pretty convoluted, but it is a complicated matter to explain, especially if one is wary of committing to unhedged notions of 'correct'. (Back to the Pinkie debate about 'clear English', verdad?).

Oddly, perhaps, hypercorrection between 'I' and 'me' seems to happen only in the direction of 'I'. I assume this is because 'me' is the most 'natural' preferred first person option in English; children acquire it long before they use 'I' and most non-standard dialects use it in non-prescribed positions - compare 'moi' in French - also in creoles, etc. So there is mistaken tendency to assume that since 'me' is often preferred by children and uneducated people where 'I' is prescribed, 'I' is more likely to be correct (high class/posh/etc) at any time than 'me', leading to the bad principle: If in doubt, say 'I'.)

Without writing a book on the subject (which I may well do), I can't present a full picture of my position on prescriptivism and standardization. But briefly: total standardization of the language is unattainable and undesirable, though in light of the first the second is immaterial. Stigmatizing the language of any group of people as ignorant, wrong, etc, is clearly socially damaging and unfairly discriminatory. Non-specialist objections of non-standard forms are grossly inaccurate: eg that they are linguistically inferior, intrinsically ugly, less logical, less complex, less regular, less subtle than standard forms, etc. Such perceptions are socially induced and reflect general class and regional prejudices rather than intrinsic issues of aesthetics, logic, etc. There is no intrinsic linguistic reason why a standard language (a very vague though useful term, anyway) is more suitable for the social purposes to which it is applied (education, research, government, etc) than is a regional dialect. These matters are purely accidents of history. The characteristics of standard English in British Colombia or New South Wales or anywhere else are in great part due to the fact that the capital of medieval England was London and that the wool trade flourished in East Anglia at that time. If these had been based on York or Chester or Durham, what counted as Standard English would be very different. So much for the intrinsic superiority of the standard.

However, we live in an imperfect and bigoted world where it is clearly a social disadvantage not to be able to produce English that is in some sense standard for the societies in which we live. The conventions of literacy are largely geared to the requirement of standard grammar and lexis. Therefore, part of the proces of acquiring literacy is the acquisition of a command of standard grammar and lexis. This should go along with an awareness of the real issues here, namely that for complex historical reasons certain kinds of language are socially prescribed in certain contexts (formal writing, etc) but NOT NECESSARILY in others: pub conversations, football matches, interaction in the family, certain kinds of artistic use of language, novels, poetry, etc. Therefore, I agree with you that acquiring standard English is empowering.

However, what is prescribed should be sensible practice and not some fantastic shibboleth dreamed up by self-appointed gurus. The best-known prescriptions have no basis in the way English has developed and is widely spoken today: the proscription of split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition, using 'hopefully' as a sentence adverb. These are just rubbish. Somewhat different but still open to debate are objections to (in given contexts) 'you and I' instead of 'you and me' or vice versa, 'amount' (instead of 'number') with countable nouns, 'between' instead of 'among ' for more than two items, etc. This set does fail to conform to strict standard norms, but are in wide use on a non-regional basisa and could represent changes in progress. I heard an academic on the radio today say that in 18 th Century Edinburgh, 'have a drink' was considered a gross Scottish provincialism as opposed to the correct standard English 'have some drink'; Samuel Johnson objected strongly to many things that are now normal: e.g. the slang neologism 'mob'. I won't go into the complex issue of so-called slang, though. Language changes.

In any case, correction should be done (if at all) with tact and consideration; more often, it is used as a put-down. I can see no justification for correcting someone in a normal spoken exchange as opposed to say a written school assignment. OK, with varying degrees of success and with varied justification, parents correct their children, but if one adult corrects another in a day-to-day exchange, he/she is asking for a punch on the nose - or, more responsibly, a verbal attack. Moreover, a skilled manipulator of the language (such as me) may well choose to exploit a nonstandard form for some particular effect. Last night I read something by Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. He wrote: 'In fact, I don't draw so good". Obviously, he knows that 'well' is prescribed here, but he chooses not to observe the prescription in order to create a particular effect ('kid's talk', 'down home' or something).

Of course, as you say, Dominic, people write in to ask what is the correct usage. They are anxious about their social standing. This is a natural reflex in a prejudiced and unequal society. But all societies are prejudiced and unequal (perhaps in varying degrees) and such reactions are probably inevitable. That does not mean that people who know better should not stand up for the truth. On the positive side, this anxiety is a manifestation of a very natural and valuable interest in the workings of language. It is a pity that it is based on misconceptions.

So I am not saying 'never prescribe'. As a language teacher one has to prescribe all the time. Just prescribe sensibly and in appropriate circumstances. As any student I have supervised can tell you, I can be a real fanatic when it comes to vetting other people's prose.

Re some other exchanges: I didn't mean to get you Canadians at each other's throats though the debate is very interesting. Incidentally, Britain, especially England and more especially urban England, IS strongly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic - not perhaps on the recent scale of Canada or Australia but still significantly so. I don't have firm figures but I believe about 15% of the population in and around Birmingham are non-native speakers, mainly Punjabi, Urdu, and Bengali but also many others, eg Hindi, Chinese, etc. My daughter teaches in an ordinary state school in Birmingham and, because of the location of the school, her pupils are exclusively from L2 homes though most - not all - were born here. London is the main centre for very recent immigration. In one single borough of London 68 languages are spoken. This is mostly a big city phenomenon; Bradford has a huge Asian minority, for example; Newcastle has a fair number of Chinese. But also Peterborough, a moderate sized market gardening town in Cambridgeshire has a very high minority of Italians. Britain has changed a bit since the 1880-1920 or so image that is the stereotype, and in fact the stereotype was never an accurate representation. When is it ever?

Tom Bloor

 

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