COMMENT: What Is Correct English?

“The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.” Chinua Achebe (cited in de Bruijn). “To deplore the misuse of words and phrases by lazy thinkers and slipshod writers is not pedantry.” J. E. Metcalfe and C. Astle (Correct English) Recent debates in the media on the correctness or otherwise of some sentences and the suitability of words and phrases in some contexts have mostly left observers, especially “non-experts”, rather confused. I have followed with keen interest, the genuine concerns of Mrs. Adjoa Yeboah-Afari, Mrs. Frances Ademola, Mr. Hamza Issah Danjumah, and Bala Sa-ad among other readers of the Daily Graphic. There is no denying the fact that the standard of English usage here in Ghana has fallen (is falling) considerably. I admire the tact and humility with which advocates like I.K. Gyasi, Africanus Owusu Ansah, Annor Nimarko, and other teachers of English have educated their readers on correct usage. In their quest to contribute to the discourse, however, some advocates have sometimes engaged in rather unnecessary debates. They refuse to accept the opinions of others while they present their own opinions as “rules”. But what is correct English? Is correctness alone proof of acceptability? Correct English, I believe, is any English that conforms to current rules of grammar and usage. In determining the correctness of a sentence, therefore, it must be borne in mind that, not only are there exceptions to the rules of grammar, but also the rules may change with time. For example, the previously held rule that it is grammatically incorrect to split the infinitive has often been challenged by most language experts. Indeed Henry Fowler, in his famous book Modern English Usage, lists the prohibition of infinitive - splitting amongst what he calls “superstitions”. Similarly, Winston Churchill’s objection that “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put" has been quoted on numerous occasions to show the absurdity that may arise if we were to regard as sacrosanct, the rule that a sentence must never end with a preposition. Language, as someone has noted, is an art, not a science. As Metcalfe and Astle have also argued in their book Correct English, “even the solecisms (grammatical errors) of yesterday may be accepted idiom of today.” Thus, a reader’s argument that “many prominent people in the country used and continue to use” the wrong idiom “You can’t eat your cake and have it” instead of the “correct” form “You can’t have your cake and eat it” would have been more plausible if he had argued that although both idioms are correct, the latter was preferred in modern usage. (See Daily Graphic, 28/08/09 p.9) In their book, A University Grammar of English, Quirk and Greenbaum have submitted that “There are numerous varieties of the English language and what we ordinarily mean by ‘English’ is a common core or nucleus which is relevant in the different forms of the language that we actually hear or read.” This observation, among others, suggests that what may be considered correct English may also to a greater extent depend on context. For instance, whereas the sentence “Bassit is older than me” is accepted in conversational or informal speech, it is considered incorrect in written or formal English where the preferred form is “Bassit is older than I (am)”. In American English it is perfectly correct to write gotten as the past participle of get whereas in British English the correct form is got. Therefore, the debate in the Daily Graphic about whether the correct phrase is speed hump or speed bump would not have arisen if the reader had known that speed hump is for the British as speed bump is for the Americans. The explanations above notwithstanding, there is a common ground in grammar and usage. This consistency has been made possible through “custom, usage and logic even if at times the logic appears curious.” Additionally, consistency is extremely necessary in ensuring cross cultural intelligibility. One can therefore not seek refuge in “context” and commit mistakes like the following: * The boy promised to follow the footsteps of his mentor. * You have received the money, isn’t it? * Tell the driver to wear his steam belt. * I got the lion share. * Mr. Osei Kwame Despite is the brainchild of Peace FM. (as was carried in a newspaper headline) One should write instead: * The boy promised to follow in the footsteps of his father. * You have received the money, haven’t you? * Tell the driver to wear his seat belt. * I got the lion’s share. * Mr. Osei Kwame Despite is the brains behind Peace fm. Perhaps it is to allow for some pragmatism and flexibility in usage that some Ghanaian linguists have called for, or rather pretend that there is, a Ghanaian English (Ghanglish). Such a variety will be welcoming indeed and would also facilitate ease of coinage. Some have, however, argued against any attempt at introducing such a variety. I. K. Gyasi for instance, has cautioned against any attempt at the “indigenization” of the English language because it could fall into the trap of “bastardization.” There is a great deal of sense in I. K. Gyasi’s observation, especially when there is no governing authority on language in Ghana like L’Academie Francaise (French Academy). So, it appears the debate will continue to dot the pages of linguistic discourse at least into the foreseeable future. But until such a time that we have our own variety of English, we cannot afford to engage in mistranslations like the following: * Colson, can you hear the scent? * I am coming. (when you are rather leaving) * My friend, pick the yoghurt leaves (as was instructed by an SHS teacher) The correct translations should read: * Colson, do you smell the scent? * I’ll be back. * My friend, pick the yoghurt bag/plastic bag. It must be noted that the writer is by no means suggesting that Ghanaians should pretend to be British in their use of the English language. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed the writer is sometimes left in a quandary, wondering why some Ghanaians feel embarrassed to speak their local language but pretend to be more British than the Queen of England when it comes to the English language. Nor does the writer fancy the sometimes obnoxious nasal twang which has come to be known as LAFA (locally acquired foreign accent). The writer agrees with those who have argued that “There is no copyright in the use of English” and that the British “cannot demand that users from other countries pay them royalties of obeisance as though the language carried a British patent to it.” However, it will be in bad taste, or rather intellectually suspect, to assume that we can employ the language anyhow. We can, therefore, not excuse students who write in a university exam that “No, the theory no de be” (i.e. No, the theory is not tenable), or “Okonkwo thems” (i.e. Okonkwo and others). It is about time we realized that good language usage (English, Dagbani, Ewe, Twi, etc.) is not only desirable but also extremely necessary. For, “the loftiest imagery of thought can fall flat if ungrammatically expressed.” Needless to say, it was guilt and embarrassment, not authority, that made Emperor Sigismund once protest in response to criticism of his Latin that, “ I am the emperor of Rome, and am above grammar.” I hasten to add that in their attempt at making the necessary corrections, however, advocates of correct usage should desist from presenting opinions as “rules”. Last but not least (Not: last but not the least), we must accept that we are fallible and thus eschew the intellectually arrogant posture we often assume when we are faced with alternative views. When this happens, we will be sure to spare ourselves the agony of committing blunders like the ones believed to have been committed some years ago by an African head of state thus: “Your majesty, I am very happy for the warmth reception I has received here. In fact, I am fed up. I can assure you that when you come to my country I will retaliate”.