John McIntyre

Proper words | COMMENTARY

Some poor devil recently encountered a teacher who was insisting on instilling “proper English” in the classroom.

Here are three ways you can deal with someone insisting on “proper English.”


Item: Glance at your watch and gasp, “Gosh, I’m running late for a doctor’s appointment. Terribly sorry, I have to leave right now.”

Item: Spill a drink on yourself.


Item: Shout, “Look! A squirrel!”

Now there are a number of different ways you can understand what “proper English” is.

Proper English is a pattern of grammar and usage some people were taught in school between puberty and coming of age. If you were taught it up to and including the 1950s and 1960s (it fell off in many places afterward, though surviving in some retrograde institutions), you learned a late-nineteenth-century understanding of English grammar that linguists find quaint and inadequate.

Proper English, spoken or written, is a dialect of English useful in education, law, business, government, and the professions because its conventions promote ready understanding. And mastery of its conventions is a means of participating in those fields.

Proper English is also a marker of belonging to certain educational, social, or cultural groups.

Proper English can be a stick with which to beat people whom you dismiss as ignorant or barbaric because their speech and writing makes use of nonstandard forms of English. It is a way of asserting that “I am in the club and you will never get past the membership committee.”

Proper English is therefore a misnomer, implying that other forms of English are improper, rather than merely inappropriate for time, place, situation, subject, or audience.

Proper English is—not to put too fine a point on it—the language of a prig.


Proper English is Standard English mistakenly characterized. Standard English is that dialect of the professions, &c., &c., mentioned above, but when you look at it closely, it gets blurry around the edges and subject to disputes, innovations and changes of fashion.

Education would be much less confusing to the young if, instead of being hectored on proper and improper English, they were merely told, “If you want to do these things, this is how the people who do them talk and write. So talk and write like them when you need to, and when you’re on your own do as you like.”