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I have yet to meet any contributor to the site who regularly marks undergraduate essays, in one of the humanities fields. That kind of person would surely be able to supply useful information as to what is accepted, and what is not, as 'correct' English grammar. after all one definition of 'correctness', in our variegated search for it, must be 'that which is accepted by examiners and others in universities etc'. Whilst the OED is a help, so much of it is archaic.

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    The point has been made many times here that there is no single authority who can pronounce on what is or isn't "correct" English. For all I know, there could be dozens of ELU members who mark undergraduate essays. But even if there were, it's highly unlikely they'd all agree on exactly what's correct/acceptable in all situations. Also, it's ridiculous to suggest OED is "archaic". The online edition is bang-up-to-date (I read today that they've recently included "omnishambles", for example) – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '13 at 17:56
  • The 'one definition' you refer to would certainly be accepted by examiners and others in humanities departments, but probably not many others. – TimLymington Oct 16 '13 at 23:07
  • There very well may be people on ELU who do regularly mark essays even at the undergrad level (actually I suspect not many; they're probably too tired of their daily work to come here to do more unpaid). And there certainly is a correct version or standard of English to hold people to (actually more than one standard, and then how people speak vs, write, and different levels of formality, etc.). And ELU answerers tend to the latter multitude of standards. What was the question again? Do you want us to proofread your work? – Mitch Oct 17 '13 at 1:46
  • English Language Learners being a site specifically chartered for the use of students and teachers of the English language, you might find what you are looking for there. – MetaEd Oct 17 '13 at 2:45
  • I think that everyone here has more or less missed the point, which perhaps reflects badly on my ability to ask the question. But imagine yourselves as a history lecturer marking undergraduate essays. One of the things on your check list of points to look for, together with such things as 'grasp of the issues', and 'evidence of wide reading', will be 'standard of written English'. Within the last category you will have 'creative writing ability' and 'grammar'. It is the last one which I think provides a valuable pointer. (Cont'd) – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 9:38
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    I know all the arguments about there being no hard and fast rules and as I have said before I began life among people who might converse in sentences which contained the word 'do' six times. That would NOT be acceptable in a university. So what is? You cannot go on ducking the question. There is a dividing line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. That, in my view is what needs to be addressed. – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 9:39
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    There is no "ducking" going on here. Not everything in English falls into the two neat categories of "correct" and "incorrect". There are colloquialisms, vernaculars, slang, jargon, informal expressions, awkward constructs, and so forth. Much of what Mark Twain wrote (particularly between the quotation marks) makes for horrible English, yet his books are well-used in English classes. Back to your question. If you are looking for "grammar" as part of your grading criteria, one fairly easy error to find is subject-verb agreement, but beware – that's not the only way to write a horrible sentence. – J.R. Oct 17 '13 at 13:08
  • In those terms what we need to be clear about is which words, in a serious essay, need to go between quotation marks. Mark Twain is not alone, you could say the same of Shakespeare, I feel sure. But that is not the point. There is a standard of English which is expected in university essays or in an editorial in the Guardian or the New York Times. Two nights ago I saw the editor of the NYT interviewed on BBC's Newsnight about the Edward Snowdon affair. She is clearly a highly erudite woman, and she wouldn't stand for rubbish English from her staff. Of that I feel certain. – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 13:35
  • Perhaps an analogy will help. You were an accountant: were you never frustrated by columnists and clients who spoke glibly about "good" investments without carefully analyzing risks? who sneered at this or that rate of return as "shabby" without regard to objectives? In these parts we feel the same frustration with people who speak glibly about "correct" and "rubbish" English, without regard to audience and purpose. – StoneyB Oct 17 '13 at 14:29
  • @stoneyB Absolutely. Don't think I always use perfectly syntaxed grammar when I speak to my wife and children. And in business it can sometimes help to speak with the voice of a working man. I cherish the regional dialects of Britain as much as the very landscape. I also enjoy listening to New Yorkers and Southerners. And I lived in Australia for a time where I soon converted much of my speech to Australian. Notwithstanding this I still argue that children should be taught grammatical English. It doesn't mean they ought not to perform in plays which involve the use of incorrect English. – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 15:23
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    But 'grammatical English' is English which observes the rules and practices of the speech community to which it is addressed. 'Correctness' is a matter of context, not of adherence to an arbitrary 'standard'. In East Anglia you speak one dialect, in East Alabama we speak another, in Academe we both speak and write a wide variety of distinct dialects (English professors mostly find the dialect written by Sociology professors repulsive). Each is 'correct' in its own context and 'incorrect' out of it. – StoneyB Oct 17 '13 at 15:38
  • I just can't imagine what life would be like if children in Liverpool were taught a form of grammar entirely different to those in Bristol or London. It was the Victorians who brought in a standard pronunciation for the educated classes which is what we call RP (Received Pronunciation) When the BBC got going in the 1920s it was predicted that it would be the death knell of regional dialects, since the BBC would use RP, which they do. In fact it is often described as BBC English. Yet oddly after nearly a century the British regional dialects are as vibrant as ever. (Cont'd) – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 16:19
  • No one quite knows why they survive but they do, perhaps more than in any western country. A young friend who is a Russian graduate and lives and works in Moscow tell us that regional dialect variations in Russia are not nearly as strong as the UK. Given the size of Russia that is surprising. But having a separate grammar for every region would be unthinkable. Someone from Newcastle going to University in London would effectively have to learn a new language. From my experience of America regional variations are far less common than in Britain and the same arguments must surely apply. – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 16:25
  • Our regional dialects have largely been leveled, because we've been leveling them much longer. But we share the fundamental dialectal divide between the spoken and written languages. And on both sides of the Atlantic we obscure the enormous diversity of written dialects by calling them 'styles'. – StoneyB Oct 17 '13 at 19:15
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    ... and I think English professors over here would tell you that most college freshmen, wherever they come from, have been so little exposed to the written language that they are effectively having to learn a new language. – StoneyB Oct 17 '13 at 19:24
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I think that the quest for a single person to dictate the rules is misguided. Instead, I believe it will be more practical for you to study the concept of prescriptivism vs descriptivism.

Before I began participating on this site, I had no awareness that such a distinction existed. None of my totalitarian English teachers had ever let slip that rules are not universal truths. They simply meted out what is right and what is wrong, and woe unto the student who dared to defend his "improper" grammar.

The reality is, what is "correct" is sometimes debated between prescriptivists, and often subject to change. What is "correct" today may not be the standard at some time in the very near future. One good example of this is "the death of "whom." It is widely believed by descriptivists that the rule for usage of who vs whom is on its deathbed (and I tend to agree.)

I don't want to bog down this answer with too many words, because I would really like to have you read this blog post. I sincerely believe that it will be helpful to you.

  • I have certainly never advocated, nor can I imagine anyone in their right mind would, that we should seek a 'single person to dictate the rules'. Language is a bit like the law. No one person says what the law should be, and often (certainly in English-speaking jurisdictions) it doesn't only come from legislators. There is a huge body of case law. Often lawyers do not know what the law is until they research it. Law is made on the hoof by judges. Whilst some things are clearly outside the law, some English should not appear in serious print, except between quotation marks. – WS2 Oct 17 '13 at 13:43
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I daresay there are several of us.

I myself have been out of the education racket for decades; but from the age of 12 until I left for college, I regularly marked undergraduate English papers for my father (it was his way of teaching me what he called 'practical grammar'), and I taught university-level theatre history and criticism for some years in the 1970s.

The canons here prohibit proofreading; but if you stand in need of it, I will be happy to point out—or, if you prefer, to correct, silently—any deficiencies of language and argument I notice in your posts.

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