I have been teaching English in Hong Kong now for over 20 years and I have often been asked the following three questions, which I will now again try to answer in this short blog post.
What is considered the best English?
I thought I would begin with this question mainly because, in short, there is no such thing as ‘the best English’. Many people assume or believe it is the Queen’s English. I guess this is because she is the head of state of the United Kingdom that includes England where English originated. As such it stands to reason for some that she has received the best education and must speak perfect English.
However, this is not the case. She speaks one of many forms of English [rather well actually] that are spoken all around the world. These include American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Indian English, Hong Kong English and even Panglish – which I shall talk more about later. Now, what I tell my students is that you should not ask what is the best, but instead should ask what is the most suitable.
To determine this, you need to consider the location, the audience, and the situation. So, for example, if you are writing an American blog on travelling [they spell traveling with one ‘l’], then informal American English would be the most suitable. If you are planning to attend university in Australia, then standard Australian English would be the most suitable. Once you have made your decision, it is generally a good idea to remain consistent, especially with spelling. This, I must say, can get a bit frustrating if your computer uses a different form of English and I’m sure someone somewhere has come up with a word to describe the type of rage some people experience when those annoying red underlines pop up!
This brings me onto the next question and one of my favourites, believe it or not:
What is Standard and Non-standard English?
Standard English is considered by many to be the most widely accepted or ‘correct’ form of English. It represents the collective view of the most educated speakers of English, which up until recently were considered to be the educated middle class who live in the South East of England, which includes, as you might expect, London. However, some people have been trying to change this because they consider it too restrictive and believe it should include a wider range of English speakers from different geographical and social backgrounds. Many people are also surprised to discover that there is no overseeing committee, like in France, that makes up the rules or decides what is or isn’t acceptable. The Oxford dictionary offers guidance on usage but this is based on observations.
It is not always easy to say that something in English is wrong, since in a different version, dialect or context it might be considered acceptable. When it is ungrammatical and meaningless, as in ‘The boy young ball kicked’ it is obvious it’s wrong. This is quite clear. However, there are many grey areas where people disagree over what is considered correct or wrong. A good example is the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Some speakers still insist that ‘who’ should be used for the subject and ‘whom’ for the object, according to formal grammar.
Who is singing? (subject)
Whom did she marry? (object)
However, the normal practice in modern English is to use ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’.
Who did she marry?
Such use according to the Oxford Dictionary is broadly accepted as standard English, mainly because it sounds more natural. Many people will disagree and even get a bit hostile in defending what they consider to be right. They are often referred to as language snobs. If you would like to meet any, just put your opinion about who and whom on social media and then have fun reading the replies!
Another good example is the use of ‘discuss about’, which is commonly used here in Hong Kong and Asia. Technically it is a tautology, since discuss means to talk about something. Hence you don’t need to repeat ‘about’. I think this use started because it sounds similar to ‘talk about’. The use of ‘discuss about’ is becoming more and more common and I believe one day it will become considered acceptable and standard English. It is a good example of Panglish which I mentioned earlier. Panglish is basically a simplified global form of the English language and is already starting to have a big influence on what is considered acceptable or standard English.
Here is the key and this is what many people find hard to grasp. English like all languages, evolves over time and is always changing. Many things can influence these changes including social and economic fluctuations, new technology, fashions, movies, and TV shows. We now ‘text’ someone or ‘suit up’ for a wedding. Another point to consider is that what is considered standard or ‘correct’ now might not be considered standard in the future. It can often take time for this process to occur, after which the term old-fashioned English might be applied. This is why language use can also be generational, with the older generation using conventions that they were brought up with, but which a younger generation may now no longer use. A good example of this is the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ which I mentioned earlier.
Standard English also applies to pronunciation and spelling. English Dictionaries use Received Pronunciation (RP) which is based again on how the educated middle class in the South East of England speak. It is often used as a standard in the teaching of English as a foreign language. However, there are many regional accents in the UK, including my favourite Estuary English, which also have their standard forms. Estuary English is a type of accent identified as spreading outwards from London and containing features of both Received Pronunciation and London speech. A good example of Estuary English is pronouncing ‘three’ as ‘free’. I often use this to wind up language snobs because they instantly pick up on it and try to correct me. At the end of the day it’s no big deal unless you are taking an English exam or attending a very formal job interview – remember it’s the situation that is important. A couple more interesting accents to mention quickly are BBC and CNN English. Have you ever noticed how similar their newscasters’ accents are?
This brings me on to the third and final question which is in some ways related.
What is the difference between Informal v Formal English?
Formal or Neutral English uses formal/standard grammar and terms and, as the name implies, tends to be used in formal situations such as in professional interviews, CVs/resumes, cover letters and business letters. It is also used in schools and universities, notably in school essays and English exams. In addition, very formal English is found in academic journals, lectures, speeches, official documents and notices where it can bring an extra degree of seriousness to the subject.
In general, formal English is not really appropriate for everyday usage since it can sound a bit funny or even pompous or pretentious. Picture being with a close friend and being told when you leave, ‘It has been a pleasure chatting to you. I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow’. It just sounds totally unnatural. Business Neutral English, though being friendlier and using contractions, can be too direct. You wouldn’t say to a friend, ‘It’s necessary for me to leave early’. That is why we tend to use informal English with friends, children, relatives and in work situations where the work environment is not professional or where we have become familiar with our colleagues or clients. A common mistake I have noticed in some companies here in Hong Kong is the mistaken belief that all memos and emails should be written in a very formal style – even when the recipients are well known to the writer. Unfortunately, they come across as being totally unnatural again.
Informal English uses everyday conversational language, including contractions and colloquialisms. In case you are wondering, colloquialisms are basically words or phrases commonly used in ordinary or familiar conversions. They vary from region to region and country to country and can cause problems for not only people who speak English as a second language but also some native English speakers who are not familiar with the local language of a particular area. A couple of my favourites are ‘ta’ which I use back in England and means thanks and ‘No can do’ which in American English means that you can not do something that you have been asked to do.
I would like to finish this first blog post of mine by saying that some writers and speakers try to use very formal English or high language to impress. This is fine, if this is what their audience expects. So for example, I don’t think you would be so impressed with a barrister or bank manager who spoke very informal English. Saying that, one very good general tip I would like to give is that you should write to express, not impress – unless the audience expects otherwise. At the end of the day it comes down to getting your message across clearly and concisely. There is no point confusing your audience with high language or difficult words when clearer and better understood ones are available.