Definition and Examples of Correctness in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In prescriptive grammar, correctness is the notion that certain words, word forms, and syntactic structures meet the standards and conventions (that is, the "rules") prescribed by traditional grammarians. Contrast correctness with grammatical error.

According to David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, "Achieving grammatical correctness is a matter of both knowledge--how to recognize and avoid errors--and timing: when to narrow your focus to proofreading" (Writing Analytically, 2012).

Examples and Observations

  • "It is in vain to set up a language police to stem living developments. (I have always suspected that correctness is the last refuge of those who have nothing to say.)"
    (Friederich Waismann, "Analytic-Synthetic V." Analysis, 1952)
  • "Concern with correctness, whether mechanical, logical, or rhetorical, is in no way illegitimate or suspect. Virtually all educators evaluate student writing for correctness of spelling, grammar, or logic. What generates the distinctive pedagogies of clear and correct writing is not a concern with correctness that no one else shares, but the rather less widespread notion that rules are somehow context-neutral, that they can be taught by themselves and then applied elsewhere."
    (Dennis McGrath and Martin B. Spear, The Academic Crisis of the Community College. SUNY Press, 1991)
  • School Grammar and Correctness
    "In nearly every instance, school grammar is traditional grammar. It is concerned primarily with correctness and with the categorical names for the words that make up sentences. Thus, students study grammatical terms and certain 'rules' that are supposed to be associated with correctness. Grammar instruction is justified on the assumption that students who speak or write expressions such as He don't do nothin' will modify their language to produce He doesn't do anything if only they learn a bit more grammar. . . .
    "Although most teachers in our public schools continue to prescribe language, linguists dropped prescription long ago, replacing it with the concept of appropriateness conditions. This expression signifies that language use is situation specific and that there is no absolute standard of correctness that applies to all situations. People modify their language on the basis of circumstances and dominant conventions . . .."
    (James D. Williams, The Teacher's Grammar Book. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

Three Kinds of Rules

"Most of our attitudes about correctness have been encouraged by generations of grammarians who, in their zeal to codify 'good' English, have confused three kinds of 'rules':

A few date from the twentieth century:But since grammarians have been accusing the best writers of violating such rules for the last 250 years, we have to conclude that for 250 years the best writers have been ignoring both the rules and the grammarians. Which is lucky for grammarians, because if writers did obey all their rules, grammarians would have to keep inventing new ones, or find another line of work."
(Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. Longman, 2003)

  1. Some rules define what makes English English--articles precede nouns: the book, not book the. These are the real rules we violate only when we are tired or rushed. . . .
  2. A few rules distinguish Standard English from nonstandard: He doesn't have any money versus He don't have no money. The only writers who consciously follow these rules are those striving to join the educated class. Schooled writers observe these rules as naturally as they observe the real rules and think about them only when they notice others violating them.
  3. Finally, some grammarians have invented rules they think we all should observe. Most date from the last half of the eighteenth century:
  • Don't split infinitives, as in to quietly leave.
  • Don't use than after different, as in This is different than that. Use from.
  • Don't use hopefully for I hope, as in Hopefully, it won't rain.
  • Don't use which for that, as in a car which I sold.

Freshman Composition and Correctness

"Composition courses provided a means to teach larger numbers of students at once, assessing their success by measuring their adherence to prescribed standards. . . .

"[M]any schools [in the late 19th century] began instituting Freshman Composition classes that focused more on correctness than invention. For example, Harvard's course English A, initiated in the 1870s, focused less on traditional aspects of rhetoric and more on correctness and formulaic responses. The concept of 'discipline' had changed from moral and religious discipline, codes of conduct and virtue, to mental discipline, means of working with repetitive drills and exercises."
(Suzanne Bordelon, Elizabethada A. Wright, and S. Michael Halloran, "From Rhetoric to Rhetorics: An Interim Report on the History of American Writing Instruction to 1900." A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Contemporary America, 3rd ed., edited by James J. Murphy. Routledge, 2012)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Correctness in Language." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Correctness in Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Correctness in Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).

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