Language police: check your privilege and priorities

April 2, 2014

Earlier this year Ragan.com published an article titled “15 signs you’re a word nerd”. Alongside a couple of unobjectionable items (You love to read; You know the difference between “e.g.” and “i.e.”) and some that didn’t apply to me (You have at least three word games on your phone) were several that I got stuck on:

Typos and abbreviations in texts drive you a little crazy.

No, not even a little. There are more than enough things in the world to be bothered by without getting worked up over trivial mistakes and conventional shortcuts in phone messages. (I assume texts here is short for text messages: obviously the “good” kind of abbreviation…)

It’s a question of register. How formally correct our language is, or needs to be, depends on context. Text messages seldom require standard English to be fully observed, and most people who text me have no difficulty code-switching appropriately. Nor do I have any difficulty coping with this informal variety of the language. Next!

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Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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Donna Tartt on language standardisation

October 16, 2013

Slate has published an interesting conversation between author Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch. As well as discussing the mechanics of the author–editor relationship, they touch on a topic of recurring fascination to me: the standardisation of language.

Since English was largely standardised centuries ago by early printers and lexicographers such as Caxton and Johnson, the process has continued through, among others, editors who codify formal written English and so serve as unofficial gatekeepers of the prestige dialect.

Tartt is “troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage”. While acknowledging the importance of house style in journalism, she laments its effects on literary expression:

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Plus, you can use it like this now

October 7, 2013

The mathematical word plus has added various functions to its set since entering English from Latin in the 16th century. It can be a noun (statistical ability is a plus), a preposition (one week plus a day or two), an adjective (it’s plus 30° outside), and a conjunction (cycling’s a great way to stay fit, plus it’s good for you).

The last of these, used at the start of a sentence or independent clause and often followed by a comma, may also be described as an adverb (Plus, I wasn’t sure if you’d be there); authorities differ on the categorisation. The usage is controversial, receiving “considerable adverse comment” (MWDEU) and causing “widespread ripples of dismay among purists” (Robert Burchfield).

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There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

February 14, 2013

A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to “correct” their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.

As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – “[show] what a live issue” it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.

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Is you is or is you ain’t bad grammar?

June 19, 2012

In a post at Lingua Franca a few months ago, Geoffrey Pullum made a useful distinction between Normal and Formal styles of English. He says “proper use of English is not defined by relentless use of Formal”, a fact that eludes those for whom correct English is coterminous with formal standard English.

Unaware that correctness, far from being absolute, can vary with register, dialect and context, people end up taking against innocuous usages and non-existent errors that then impair their enjoyment of language. Their appreciation of music suffers too, because they hold song lyrics to the same restrictive standards as elevated writing.

Certain lyrics are ungrammatical: I don’t dispute that. But people flip out over double negatives, omitted subjunctives, reflexive pronouns and the playful disregard of formal subject-verb agreement as though these implied illiteracy, laziness, stupidity or recklessness. Never mind dialectal sensitivity: not even poetic licence gets a look-in here.

The common but notoriously non-standard word ain’t occurs frequently in song lyrics and is often singled out for criticism, be it light-heartedly ironic or stern and cranky:

I dislike hearing the word ain’t in a song and sometimes an otherwise beautiful piece of music just grates when that word is used. Having been a teacher I guess to me it’s the grand daddy of bad grammer [sic].

But ain’t isn’t really a grammatical issue. Bad grammar and non-standard language, though commonly conflated, are not the same thing, as I said in a discussion on Grammar Girl’s blog last year. Bad grammar means something like “Us goed town.” I don’t think that’s grammatical in any variety of English, though we might hear goed from a child who has temporarily regularised a strong verb.

There are rules of syntax and morphology that we pick up as infants and observe automatically, and there are “rules” – generally style or usage guidelines – that we’re taught later and that may be worth heeding in certain settings. But to many people, bad grammar and grammar errors simply mean any set of conventions in English that differ from the formal standard (or from their interpretation of it).

In short: informal ≠ incorrect, and non-standard ≠ sub-standard. A particular kind of English – formal written style – is socially privileged, and sometimes it’s exalted at the expense of common sense or courtesy. Ignorance of these nuances means irrational peeves thrive, and people make a habit of collecting and hating everyday usages that don’t fit their narrow sense of what’s acceptable.

English is replete with styles, dialects and sublanguages that are fully context-appropriate, and grammatical in their own right. They’re not what you’d use in a business letter or ceremonial speech, but why would they be? Different domains of expression have their own norms: it’s presumptuous and preposterous to impose one set on all others.

Songwriters draw on genre conventions and their own dialects, both of which they may play with and subvert. Insisting on formal standard English all the time is like prescribing formal attire 24/7. It’s like saying E. E. Cummings ought to fix his formatting, or demanding that jazz obey 2/4 time. No wonder peevers can’t get no satisfaction.

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