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SHOULD one speak well or good? Is it best never to split an infinitive, or is it dogmatic to never split an infinitive? The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition - foolishness up with which one should not put? For present purposes, the important aspect of those sentences isn't the answers, but that many speakers and writers of English wouldn't even spot the issues.

It's safe to generalize that throughout the English-speaking world, schools devote less rigor to spelling, grammar, and syntax than once was the case. And many critics contend that the results are manifest in ever more sloppy speaking and writing. Britain's Prince Charles recently bemoaned the language-competency level of his own staff. His was responding to the British government's adoption of new teaching guidelines in British state schools, which eschew repetitive drilling in grammar.

The guideline drafters have a different view of the best way to teach grammar, but, more broadly, they assailed the notion that there is a ``right'' or ``correct'' form of English; standard (``the Queen's'') English they called just one dialect among many.

There have been similar debates in the United States, such as over the appropriateness of allowing ``black English'' in schools. Happily, the traditionalists have generally prevailed. California, for instance, has largely backtracked on an attempt to modify the formal teaching of English grammar.

Some proponents of teaching ``correct'' English advance economic and political arguments. Because standard English is the ``coin of the realm'' in influential circles, they note, those who wish to rise in the world, to participate fully in business and public affairs, must learn to communicate effectively and acceptably.

Is that contention elitist? Perhaps a bit; yet standard English's preeminence is not the arbitrary preferment of one ``dialect'' over others. Virtually all the rules of English grammar - as in other languages - are founded on logic and precise thinking about the relationships not just among words, but among ideas.

Haphazard use of language is a barrier to much of the richness of human experience. That must not be lost sight of in the educational debates over teaching English.

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