Harry Ritchie sees standard grammar primarily as a socioeconomic signal

by Mr. Sheehy

If a non-standard-speaking child persists in using non‑standard English, particularly non-standard grammar, that child will rarely progress. This is, of course, a class issue, standard English being the only dialect defined by socioeconomics rather than geography, and spoken by only 15% of the British population (the richest 15%). It is working-class children whose language is still marked as incorrect and who have to intuit the need to switch dialects – or fail..

In any formal, written context, only standard English is accepted. And in any informal, middle-class context, from office email to pub chat, non-standard usage will be noticed by standard speakers, who will judge that non-standard user to be at least unsophisticated, probably uneducated and very possibly a bit thick.

Let me quote a letter-writer to the Scotsman newspaper last year, complaining about declining linguistic standards. “I remember one candidate in a job interview,” the letter-writer reminisced, “saying, ‘Oh, we done that in media studies.’ End of interview,” he finished, approvingly.

While I’m not ready to throw out the importance of learning grammar and standard English, I do find Harry Ritchie’s thoughts and ideas in The Guardian worth engaging and considering. It does reveal that while grammar has a role in assisting clear expression, that role might depend more on context than we often admit; it also reveals how we often use a person’s standard or non-standard grammar as a sign of other education having occurred. The Scotsman in the example certainly sees it as a signal of education, and I myself have justified its importance in similar terms (“If a student writes with this grammar in the world, people will think he’s stupid”). What effect might Ritchie’s position have on education? That would be significant.

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