Frank L. Cioffi


On his book One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook

Cover Interview of December 06, 2016

The wide angle

One thing I ask often is this: what is the value of “correct” grammar? It seems to me that correctness has gotten a bad reputation: most people think it’s an obsession of a bygone age; in fact, some of my students contend that concern for correctness is “out of date” in the “era of social media.” Most people understand what you mean, even if there are some grammatical mistakes evidenced in the written message.

My take on this is as follows: yes and no. I emphasize that there is no single correct version of English, and that one needs to take into consideration both the occasion and audience. That is, what is the language you are generating being used for? Is it a remark to a friend or family member at your breakfast table, is it an email to a company you’re trying to buy something from, is it a tweet you are sending out to hundreds of followers, is it a job application letter or a letter of reference or a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? All of these are quite different writing situations, and each demands a different “level” of English, a different attentiveness to correct and exact expression.

While much English we generate, then, is informal and off the cuff, there are, for most people, also some significant situations in which formal, correct English is necessary.

In these situations, which sometimes might masquerade as “informal” language situations, one should probably use formal English, or SWE, since not doing so can possibly have two negative effects: first, communicative efficiency might suffer. If one is not careful with pronouns, a sentence might, for example, not make it clear enough what the antecedent to a pronoun is. You don’t want an audience to be wondering, “Who is the ‘he’ being referred to?” And in many professional situations such exactness is of paramount importance—even a comma misused can cost someone untold amounts of money ... or heartache. Second, oftentimes, using a grammatically incorrect form will often stigmatize the speaker or writer; an audience, or a portion of it, might dismiss that speaker’s or writer’s ideas, thinking that those ideas can’t be any good since the person can’t even speak or write correct English.

Now admittedly such dismissals often emerge from a misunderstanding of the rules (“I can’t take him seriously; he splits his infinitives”), but as a writer or speaker, one needs to be aware of what predilections one’s audience might have.

Taking off from this, I debunk certain prohibitions, such as “avoid split infinitives, such as ‘to boldly go’” (in fact, split infinitives are just fine); “avoid ending sentences with a preposition: (again, no harm at all in this); “never start a sentence with a conjunction like ‘so’ or ‘and’” (there is no problem starting sentences with conjunctions).

Finally, the book offers an “ethical stance” to correct language use, suggesting that society would work much more smoothly if more people were more conscientious about their writing and speaking.