23 November 2009

Proper English vs. Good English

There is a world of difference between proper, dictionary-based English, and proper conversational English.  About the same difference as there is between proper conversational English and the English that you hear most people use in conversation.

The English language is, for all intents and purposes, ridiculously complex.  Unnecessarily so.  But it is the complexity that makes me love it so, and also makes it  quite interesting.  Because, honestly, there’s a word for everything:

borborygmus (bor-buh-RIG-muhs) - noun; A rumbling noise caused by the movement of gas through the intestines.

And while some of you, like me, see a word like that, and can’t wait for the opportunity to use it in conversation (a friend of mine recently discovered sessile, and has been using it ever since. . . great word), most people aren’t going to be dropping that baby at the dinner table.

Proper English, that language your ancient teachers and tyrannical grandparents tried to instill in you, just isn’t used that often.  As well it shouldn’t.  Strict, rigid English should be reserved for legal documents, official decrees, things like that.  The sort of things where precise meaning, and I do mean precise, is necessary.

Conversational English, on the other hand, is a whole other beast.  It contains a much smaller vocabulary, but is used far more extensively.  Where, in a legal document, you need the exact word to describe what you mean, in conversational English any word will do, as long as it’s close, and your listeners understand what you mean.  Take borborygmus, for example.  Most people wouldn’t use that word, even if they knew it.  They’d say their stomach was gurgling, or that they were gassy.  Everybody would know what they meant, and, depending on the social setting, talk about their own bowels or shun the speaker completely, like a leper.

But the lack of constraint in conversational English is not a free pass.  It allows you to be lazy with your language, and take many, many shortcuts, but it still binds you to a lot of rules.  While it’s perfectly okay to say “I don’t wanna go to the store”, it is not okay to say “Store not go”.  Technically, while you’re getting the same points across, and both would make an eighteenth century governess weep for the future of mankind, the first gets your point across while maintaining at least a passing familiarity with grammatical rules and sentence structure.

While I’m on the subject, I want to take a moment to address something that mothers have been teaching their children for centuries.  Something that they have been getting wrong.  How many times have you heard a child say something akin to the following:

“Daddy took me and Billy to the pool today!”

Only to have their mother correct them with:

“No, Daddy took ‘Billy and I’ to the pool, honey.”?

Most times, that mother is correct.  This instance, however, is not one of those times.  She is teaching a bad lesson, and should be corrected herself.

In these particular situations, there is a pretty hard and fast rule for using ‘I’ over ‘me’.  Essentially, it boils down to one thing.  If you were alone, which would you use?  Use that one.  So, “Daddy took me to the pool today!” becomes “Daddy took me and Billy to the pool today!”  You wouldn’t say “Daddy took I to the pool today!”  That sounds ridiculous.  Similarly, “I went to the pool today, with Daddy!” becomes “Billy and I went to the pool today, with Daddy!”  It kind of flies in the face of countless reminders from your mother, and possibly your teachers, but once you get in the habit of it, it’ll become second nature.

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