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ESL forum > Grammar and Linguistics > “What is CORRECT?” “What is INCORRECT?”    

“What is CORRECT?” “What is INCORRECT?”

United Kingdom

“What is CORRECT?” “What is INCORRECT?”


Hello, Everyone,


I am always a little uneasy when Members ask: �What is the correct way to say ...?�


This seems to imply that there is one correct way to say something, and that all the other ways of speaking, (or writing), are incorrect.  Some Grammar Books reinforce this idea.  Often, this is not the case, because there are probably several alternatives available to use.


Initially, (in my opinion), the Student should choose one acceptable form of phrase until it has been learned completely, and then learn others.


The choice of phrase may depend on a variety of factors.  It is not possible to give examples covering every case, but here are some different factors which may affect the choice of English expression used.


The country or area --- UK or USA or Australia; north, east, south, west; city or village; for example.

The person speaking or writing --- the �boss� or the �servant�.

The person being addressed (the audience) --- the �servant� or the �boss�.

The sex of the speaker and of the listener.

The �culture� of the situation --- race, language, local dialect, religion, society, employment, home, etc. and also complying with the rules of English Examinations.

The respective ages of the two persons --- younger and older, or older and younger, or equal.

Adult or child.

The degree of familiarity between the two persons --- family, friends, acquaintances, strangers.

The degree of friendliness or hostility --- friends or enemies.

Native speaker or second-language speaker.

The degree of ability in English --- beginner or fluent.

The distance between the two persons --- adjacent or 1000 kilometres apart, etc.

The environment --- the home, the workplace, etc.

The method of communication --- spoken, or written.

The means of communication --- face to face, telephone, e-mail, letter, radio, TV, etc.

The actual situation --- numerous.

The intended effect of the message --- numerous.

Personal preference.


Think about it!  All of these (and others) affect our choice of words.  Even spelling and pronunciation may vary.


Language is not an exact science, like Mathematics. �2 + 2 = ?  What is the correct answer?�


Language is a living, changing, developing means of communication.  Every one of us has an effect upon it!



23 Feb 2011      



I completely agree with you about this point, but would like to mention that most of us have students who want to take official exams, so we have to teach them the standard and grammatically accepted forms, even if we teach them the colloquial forms or the usage in particular regions or countries.

The issue is true in every language and in Portuguese we use to say: �What we say is different from what we write.� As teachers we should try to learn from our mistakes and try to improve our English skills � as we tell the students to do. That�s one of my �missions� and I have certainly learned a lot since I registered here.

On the other hand, IMHO native speakers shouldn�t transfer to students their own mistakes (even the �accepted� ones, in everyday speech) and teach the cleaner and accepted forms first.

The grammar books may be either right or wrong when they reinforce the idea of �correct� and �incorrect�, but when a person tries TOEFL � or other official exam � he�ll be judged according to the grammar books and not regions or countries usage.

Have a nice day!

23 Feb 2011     

United Kingdom

Dear Zailda,
Thank you!  I agree with you entirely.
I have altered my original Post slightly, to take account of Examination requirements.
Thank you.

23 Feb 2011     

United Kingdom

And what standard form, Zailda, do you teach in Brazil? May I draw your attention to an article by the respected linguist David Crystal about SE:

It �s in pdf. format, so you can download it and read it at your leisure. I think you �ll be very interested.

By the way, I agree with Les, too. The word �correct � is often bandied about here without any real reflection, consideration or - perish the thought - research. More often than not, it simply reflects an individual �s prejudices and pet peeves.

23 Feb 2011     


I work at a branch of school that produces its books and courses. The language center is in Rio de Janeiro and there �s also a second one in Miami. They have a staff of teachers and liguistic specialists who decide what we �re going to teach and how.

23 Feb 2011     


almaz - were you perhaps at TESOL-Spain when David Crystal spoke on that subject - he �s a great speaker!

On the subject of �correct � English, I �m currently having a terrible time. I spent six years in Spain teaching what I consider to be correct English (that would be the British variety). I moved to China last year to work for Disney English and, of course, they teach American English. It �s killing me! (not just the work hours though those are tough!) There are so many lexical, orthographical and grammatical differences that I often feel I �m teaching a foreign language.

Luckily I don �t have to prepare my students for external exams - I think my heart would break!


23 Feb 2011     


LOL Poor Lindsey, I laugh since I know exactly what you are talking about. Canadian English is a nice mixture of American and British English but, when I started teaching EVERY teacher around would say - it �s not eraser, it �s rubber; we spell it colour not color; "for" goes with the Present Perfect etc...

Now, where I come from colour, color, labour, labor, gray, grey, center, centre are all used!! Nobody tends to bat an eye at this. People say "apricot" as well as "ay-pricot" and we just nod in understanding. We also say "He was here for 2 hours" as well as "he has/had  been here for 2 hours"..  and nobody considers it wrong as long as the context it �s used in is correct... Imagine my surprise when I started teaching that I was told I was misinformed, incorrect, or didn �t know what I was talking about!

So yes, I agree that "correctness" is relative and that a good teacher knows that there is more to English than what "a book says".

23 Feb 2011     


@ Les   2 + 2 = ?  What is the correct answer?  2 + 2 = 22 correct?


23 Feb 2011     

United Kingdom

Unfortunately, Lindsey, I missed him. But I �ve got all his books - well, enough to be going on with. 

I can sympathise with your Chinese experience. I worked there some years ago after I left mainstream teaching, although our problem was that there were so many standard Englishes (there were teachers from just about every English -speaking country in the world at one time or another) but no single accepted standard for teaching. This obviously reflected the linguistic reality but it often had the result that students would quite happily tell you that you �d mis-spelled �centre � because Mike from Philly and Mary-Lou from Poughkeepsie said it should be �center �.

Yes, Zora, I pity the poor Canadian with his �Tire Centre �! (actually, I borrowed that from a photo in one of Crystal �s books)

23 Feb 2011     


Ahh, yes... If you find yourself in front of a "Tire Centre", you have most assuredly landed in Canada! LOL And you will never tire of seeing these tyre shops!

23 Feb 2011     

United States

I get it...We should be asking: "What is the right answer?" Sorry couldn �t help myself. My head is bowed in shame.

23 Feb 2011