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

Linguistic hygiene in Sling Blade

March 9, 2016

Last night I watched the film Sling Blade (1996) for the first time in years decades and liked it all over again. It has linguistic appeal too: the characters speak in strong dialects with idiomatic expressions.

More than once the main characters say how much they like how the other one talks, as a way of conveying their mutual fondness and friendship:

sling blade - i like the way you talk

sling blade - he likes the way i talk - billy bob thornton + james hampton

There are two items in particular I want to note here. The first is a moment of mild prescriptivism at a family table.

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Here’s two posts on grammatical concord

March 8, 2016

My latest two posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog are about grammatical agreement, also known as concord, and focus on the flexibility of these rules. Agreeing with grammatical concord introduces the subject and briefly explains the important difference between formal and notional agreement:

Formal agreement demands strict numerical agreement: neither of these plans is perfect; four pounds are all I have; the team was successful. Notional agreement is looser, and can correspond to the overall sense rather than the explicit number: neither of these plans are perfect; four pounds is all I have; the team were successful.

Team is like family, staff, government, crowd, audience, public, company, group, jury, and other ‘nouns of multitude’ that have a foot in both singular and plural camps. In a given context, singular or plural may work better than the other by emphasising, respectively, either the collective unit or the individual parts of the subject. Sometimes singular is preferred in one dialect, plural in another.

As my post goes on to show, it can get tricky.


Next I zeroed in on the phrase there is/are, which exemplifies the distinction sketched above. There are plurals, and then there’s plurals:

There are good reasons to obey formal agreement when you use a form of there is. But there’s also reasons not to, sometimes. Using there are with a plural subject, as I did at the start of this paragraph, is formally correct, and appropriate in most situations. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or inappropriate to use there is with a plural subject, and the same goes for the reduced form there’s and the past tense there was.

Some prescriptivists would insist that a line like There’s two patients in the waiting room is wrong, end of discussion. But it’s more accurate and reasonable to just consider it less formal.

angela bourke - by salt water - short storiesTo the irritation of peevers and purists, plural nouns are used with there is (or there’s, there was, there wasn’t, etc.) not only in casual speech but in literature; my post has examples from authors such as Penelope Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, and Edna O’Brien.

A related construction, with that’s, appears in Angela Bourke’s story ‘Majella’s Quilt’ in her collection By Salt Water: ‘They think red and black are awful together, but that’s the colours I want to use.’

The one-right-way brigade may wish to limit your expressive freedom, but – as my post concludes – there’s always options in English.

Older posts can be viewed in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

The history of English spelling reform

February 8, 2016

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

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Anthony Burgess on James Joyce and dream-literature

January 4, 2016

Fans of James Joyce’s writing who haven’t read Anthony Burgess’s Here Comes Everybody (1965) might want to add it to their list. Anyone who has dipped into Joyce and remains interested but perhaps daunted by his later prose is likely to find it especially helpful.

Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter, on the comic–cosmic nature of Ulysses and the difficulty of that book and its successor Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce set out to put language to sleep:

‘Comic’ is the key-word, for Ulysses is a great comic novel – though comic in a tradition that has been obscured by ‘popular’ conceptions of comedy – P. G. Wodehouse, Richard Gordon and the rest. The comedy of Joyce is an aspect of the heroic: it shows man in relation to the whole cosmos, and the whole cosmos appears in his work symbolised in the whole of language. . . .

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Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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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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