The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.


John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity

Reconciling descriptivism with editing

November 10, 2015

A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:

Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).

Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).

Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.

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Notes on language from Steve Martin

October 14, 2015

Yes, that Steve Martin. I just read Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, his engaging account of his early years as a stand-up comedian and gag writer for TV, and I’d like to share a few short passages that relate to language.

On one of his endless trips around America as an aspiring freelance comic, Martin began taping his shows with a cassette recorder ‘in case I ad-libbed something wonderful’. This led to his abandoning a routine in which he drank a couple of glasses of wine, because when listening to the tape later he could hear himself slurring. He never drank alcohol before or during a show again.

He also made another significant change based on reviewing the tapes:

Texas-born and California-raised, I realized I was dropping my “ings” – runnin’, walkin’, and talkin’ – and I worked like Eliza Doolittle to elevate my speech. It was a struggle; at first I thought I sounded pretentious and unnatural. But I did it, though now and then I slip back into my natural way of speakin’.

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Colour words and archaisms in rural Donegal

May 12, 2015

Red hair is strongly associated with Irish people on account of how common it is here. Less well known, at least outside the island, is that the Irish language has one word, rua, for the red of red hair and another word, dearg, for more prototypically red hues.*

Robert Bernen - Tales from the Blue Stacks - Poolbeg Press book coverEvery language carves up the colour spectrum differently, and it can take children a while to figure it all out in the culture they happen to be raised in. Even as an adult I still discover nuances, one of which appears in Robert Bernen’s story ‘The Yellow Dog’ in his collection Tales from the Blue Stacks (1978).

The narrator is visiting a local farmer with a view to getting a sheep dog:

‘Is this the dog?, I asked.

His fur was that light rust or orange colour we talk of as red hair, and so often associate with Ireland. At home, in America, I would have called him a brown dog. Here in the Donegal hills, I found out later, he was a yellow dog. As I watched him squirming towards me, his belly so low to the ground it seemed as if he was almost afraid to stand at his real height, with that look in his eyes of hope filled with fear, I thought to myself, ‘At least he’ll be friendly.’

‘Will he make a good sheep dog?’ I asked.

‘The best,’ Mickey Paddy answered.

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Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.


One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.

Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

March 13, 2015

She be’s out on that bike every Sunday

They do be up late chatting

Everyone knows about grammatical tense – it involves placing a situation in time, using inflections and auxiliaries to mark temporal location in the past, present, future, etc. Aspect, though less familiar, also concerns time: specifically, how a speaker views the temporal structure or properties of an action or situation, such as whether it’s complete, habitual, or still in progress.

So for example, in the progressive aspect an action is, was, or will be in progress: am walking, was writing, will be singing. It pairs auxiliary be with a gerund-participle complement (__ing). The terminology can be forbidding, but the structure is familiar.

Then there’s habitual aspect for habitual or repeated events or states. In the past tense, English can use would (She would make tea when we called) or used to (We used to meet daily). In English present tense, habitual aspect is not marked, and is often indicated with adverbs or adverbials: We go there [regularly / all the time].

Irish English, also called Hiberno-English, can express habitual aspect in present tense by enlisting Irish (Gaelic) grammar. In Irish, tá mé (which can contract to táim) means ‘I am’, literally ‘is me’. But bíonn mé (→ bím) means ‘I (habitually) am’ – a different sense of be. The distinction is so intrinsic to Irish that our ancestors refashioned English to incorporate it.

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German-speaking-proficiency shame

February 2, 2015

The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:

The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.

That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”

Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.


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