What Is Good English?

Concluding Chapter of 'Modern English' by George Philip Krapp (1909)

Queen's English
The Queen's English isn't the only kind of good English. (In this photo, President George W. Bush listens as Queen Elizabeth II delivers a speech during a state dinner at the White House in May 2007.). (Pool/Getty Images)

Professor George Krapp's engaging response to the question "What is good English?" remains as provocative today as when it was first published in 1909.

Introduction to the Author

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1872, George Philip Krapp (1872–1934) was a professor of English at Columbia University from 1897 until his death in 1934. He was the first editor of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and in 1925 published his authoritative study of The English Language in America.

In addition, he contributed articles on language to H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine and, among many other books, published a modern English version of Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida.

In the preface to Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use (1909), Krapp describes his study as "untechnical, but not, the author hopes, unscholarly." And indeed, his account of the development of English sound patterns, vocabulary, and syntax is both well informed and highly readable.

Here, in the conclusion to Modern English, Krapp defines "good English" as language that "hits the mark," expressing "exactly what the speaker or writer wishes to express."

What Is Good English?

Conclusion of Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use, by George Philip Krapp (1909)

In the discussions of the preceding pages a good deal has been said here and there concerning good English and bad English. It may be of advantage to gather together, by way of conclusion, the various threads of these discussions, and to endeavor to present some connected answer to the ever-recurring question, What is good English?

It is plain that the question of good English may arise with reference to any of the different sides of language. Thus the point to be determined may be one of sound, or pronunciation; of words, or vocabulary; or one of grammar in the narrower sense, the way in which the sounds and words of the language are united for the expression of thought.

But the principles which govern the answer to all questions of good English, whether of pronunciation, or vocabulary, or grammar, are the same. The feeling which underlies the distinctions of right and wrong, of good and bad, is a general feeling for the language as a whole, and the threefold division that has been made is only of practical value as a convenient way of ordering the various kinds of detail which come up for discussion.

Any English that "hits the mark"

In the first place, there should be a clear understanding of the difference between "good English" and "conventional" or "standard English." Standard English is likely to be good English, but all good English is not necessarily standard English. What, then, is good English? The purpose of language being the satisfactory communication of thought and feeling, that is good English which performs this function satisfactorily. Such a definition of good English, it will be observed, is purely utilitarian and practical. It defines good English only in the terms of its activity, without reference to any theoretical and abstract conceptions of its value or significance. Whenever two minds come into satisfactory contact with each other, through the medium of language, we have then, so far as each instance taken by itself is concerned, a good use of language.

The rustic with his dialect, and in his own homogeneous dialect community, realizes as much the purpose of language as the most polished speaker in the "best society" of the city. Each expresses himself satisfactorily and is understood satisfactorily, and more than this language at its best cannot do. Our definition of good English is, therefore, very simple; any English that "hits the mark" is good English. To hit the mark in the center, it must express exactly what the speaker or writer wishes to express, in such linguistic terms as will convey to the hearer or reader exactly those impressions which it is intended that he shall receive.

Three kinds of speech

When we come to analyze the situation a little more closely, however, we find that there are various kinds of good English, that the question of "bad English" usually arises when one kind of English is used in circumstances which require a different kind, when one has tried to hit the mark with the wrong arrow.

Thus there is that form of English which is known as "popular English." This is the speech of those who, usually through limited experience and education, are unacquainted with the usage which the community in general regards as the better social custom. Sometimes, as in the poetry of Burns, it is made the vehicle for literary expression. Usually, however, it is a purely colloquial speech. Naturally, the limits of popular English are not absolutely defined, but are largely a matter of opinion. The term usually carries with it some unfavorable connotations. Popular English is the "vulgar" English of the lower classes of society. But just who these lower classes are, just the dividing line between the upper and the lower, these are matters hard to determine. A positive test of culture, outside the dogmatic opinion of individuals, has never yet been discovered. Certainly it can hardly be said that the person who has received the conventional education is, by and for that reason solely, a more highly cultivated person than one who has not.

A second kind of English is called "colloquial English." This is the speech of the commonplace concerns of daily life and of less serious conversation, a speech freer and less conscious than formal speech, but not carrying with it the suggestion of illiteracy which characterizes popular speech. The degree of colloquialism which one permits, in one's self or in others, depends on the subject of conversation, on the intimacy of the acquaintanceship of the persons speaking, and in general on all the attendant circumstances.

A third kind of English is "formal or literary English." This is the English of public speaking, of more formal conversation, and of printed and written literature. It varies widely in the degree of its formality, the style of a philosophic treatise being appropriately more formal than that of a light essay.

There is also one manner of speaking for the pulpit and another for the lecture-platform, one manner for the judge in court and another for the stump orator. The line of demarcation between formal and colloquial English is not sharp, just as it is not between colloquial and popular English. The style of some authors or public speakers, for example, is decidedly more colloquial, more familiar, than that of others. With all, however, whatever the degree of formality, the dependence of the literary speech upon the colloquial speech of natural intercourse is necessary. It is from the colloquial speech that the literary speech has its vitality. If left to itself, its tendency would be to develop into a highly specialized and artificial form of expression--a special high-caste language for literature that would grow less and less real and expressive as it detached itself more and more from the colloquial speech in which the common human concerns of life and death find their most intimate expression. It is perhaps better, therefore, to speak of these three kinds of speech, popular, colloquial, and literary, not as three distinct and separate species, but rather as three tendencies of development of what is at bottom one speech, and that a popular speech in the sense that it comes directly from the experiences of men and women, in the immediate affairs of life.

Language, as Walt Whitman says, "is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea."

Each of these three tendencies of English speech has its appropriate uses. They are three kinds of arrows with which different speakers at different moments strive to hit the mark of good English. To hit the mark of the serious literary style, one does not use the arrow of the obviously colloquial speech, and still less of popular speech. To hit the mark in colloquial conversation, one does not use the arrow of the formal speech, nor, among cultivated persons, of the popular speech, unless indeed one is ignorant of the fact that the usages are regarded as popular by the person whom one is addressing. The popular speech naturally does not often come into conflict with the colloquial speech of polite conversation, or with the formal speech, since the characteristic of the popular speaker is his ignorance of the other forms of speech. For the same reason the speech of polite conversation does not, and need not, adapt itself to the popular speech when speakers of the two kinds come into contact with each other. Otherwise it is assumed "that a man of taste and ability will modify his use of language to meet the special requirements of the task proposed. He will have learned by study to distinguish between different tones and values in the instrument of speech, and will have acquired by exercise the power of touching that mighty organ of expression to various issues" [John Addington Symonds, Essays, Speculative and Suggestive, 1890, Vol. I, page 267].

It thus appears, if the above statements are true, that language which may be adequately expressive, and therefore good, under one set of circumstances, under a different set of circumstances becomes inadequately expressive, because it says more or less than the speaker intended, and so becomes bad English. One learns thus the lesson of the complete relativity of the value of language, that there is no such thing as an absolute English, but that language is valuable only as it effects the purpose one wishes to attain, that what is good at one time may be bad at another, and what is bad at one time may be good at another.

Speech communities

But something further must be said about that tendency of English which results in what is known as the conventional, or standard, English. It is not necessary to discuss here why mankind strives to formulate customs and habits into a fixed system. The fact itself is obvious. Through this natural instinct, as we may call it, in all our social customs, of daily manners, of dress, of morals, of speech, more or less regularized systems of conduct grow up. In language, each community, whether it is large or small, has a general understanding that this or that pronunciation, or, this or that rule of grammar, is the accepted standard, or conventional, one. This general understanding is arrived at in a purely voluntary, and often at first unconscious, way. Nobody imposes, nobody has the power to impose, any rules of standard speech on a community. As we have before pointed out, a rule is merely the statement of the general custom of a community. We might, consequently, speak of the standard popular, the standard colloquial, and the standard literary speech of this or that geographical community. Usually, however, the term is understood in a somewhat more limited sense. It is used to signify not merely the customary use of a community, but especially that use when it is recognized and acknowledged as the good use of that community. Any usage which is thus given its patent of respectability is regarded as standard use. It is customary use raised to the position of conscious legalized use. Of course the question of standard does not arise until there is some conflict of standards. As in the case of civil law, no customary practice is legalized, or standardized, until doubts are raised with respect to it, until some one attempts to depart from the customary practice. Then it is necessary to come to some agreement as to what shall be recognized as the accepted practice. In the case of civil law this is done either through the passing of a formal law by some legislative body, or through the decisions handed down by judges in passing upon disputed cases of customary and accepted practice in the dealings of men with each other.

In matters of language the legal or standard practice cannot be so easily determined. Owing to the fact that there is no legislative body in language, no specified court of appeal, there is occasionally lack of agreement as to what shall and what shall not be recognized as the accepted use of the language. The government of the language is not as fully and as definitely organized as is the government of the business and other overt acts of men. In many instances, or rather in most instances, there is unanimity of opinion, and then we have an unquestioned and general standard use. The great body of English usage is thus made up of forms of language with respect to which there is practically no difference of opinion. Sometimes, however, due to various causes, such as the coming together of two speakers from two different geographical or social speech communities, instances occur in which there arises difference of opinion. In one community or one group, he don't, or these kind of people, or I will, for the future, will be accepted as the conventional, standard speech of the community. When they are used in this community or this group, they express their thought completely, and carry with them no connotation to the discredit of the speaker. In another geographical community, or by certain speakers within a community, these usages will be condemned as not standard, therefore as not satisfactorily expressive, and consequently as "wrong" or "incorrect." Who shall decide? Nothing can decide but the observation of custom. What is defended as customary use by a community, or even by a single speaker, to carry the matter to its final analysis, is standard, or conventional, or "right," or "correct," in that community or for that speaker. The question of correctness and incorrectness, that is, of standard, can only arise when a conflict of opinion arises, and this conflict can only be decided by such an extension of the field of observation of customary use, on the particular question, as will determine finally what the true custom is. That this is often a difficult matter is not to be denied; it is, however, only one of the many ways in which man is driven to an observation of his surroundings and to a continual adaption of his conduct to these surroundings. The importance of standard speech for the welfare of the community should also be recognized. It is only by the acceptance of general custom that speech can be made effective at all, and it is every speaker's duty to follow the best custom of the speech as he views it. Not idiosyncrasy, not singularity, should be the ideal in speech, but a wise adjustment to and harmony with the general custom of the speech.

Standard English

Standard, and in that sense conventional and "correct," English is consequently not altogether the same thing as good English. We have said that standard English is the customary use of a community when it is recognized and accepted as the customary use of the community. Beyond this, however, is the larger field of good English, any English that justifies itself by accomplishing its end, by hitting the mark. It is plain that standard English must continually refresh itself by accepting the creations of good English. It has always been so in the past, and so it is in the present. If the standardizing tendency were carried to its fullest extent, it would result in a complete fixity of language. If by following standard use one should have to follow customary use, it is plain that there could be no place in the standard speech for innovation--all would be summed up in the simple formula, Follow custom. Language would thus soon cease to be positively expressive; it would soon come to have no more personal value than an algebraic formula. But fortunately the standardizing tendency can never be carried out to its completest development, and opposed to it, or at least complementing it, will always be the ideal of good English in the broadest sense of the words. All that the standardizing tendency can do is to fix a vague and general outline of the language. This indeed is necessary and valuable to prevent a complete chaos of pronunciation, of vocabulary, and of grammar. But within these vague limits there is broad freedom. Poets and prose writers, lively imaginations of all kinds, in speech as in literature, are continually widening the bounds of the conventional and standard language by adding to it something that was not there before. They must do so if speech is ever to rise above the dead level of the commonplace. "Justice of perception consists in knowing how and when and where to deviate from the beaten track." But deviation there must be, and the persons who attain an individual style in the use of language are those who seize their opportunities as they present themselves. To them the prime and necessary virtue in language is expressiveness, and, as complementing this, there should correspond on the part of the hearer or reader the willingness to receive the expression as fully as it was intended. Again, however, we insist on the continual application of the test of good English--it must be satisfactorily expressive. If it does not justify itself by accomplishing its purpose, if it shocks the prejudices, or the traditions, of the person to whom it is directed, or if it be unintelligible, if in any way it fails to secure a satisfactory and unhindered transmission of the thought, then to the extent of this failure it is bad English. And it is bad not because it has failed to satisfy any condition of theoretical, ideal excellence, any notions of standard, but because in the actual practice of the art of language it has failed to produce the result for which that art exists.


Modern English: Its Growth and Present Use, by George Philip Krapp, was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1909.