“Colloquial” Does Not Have to Equate with “Ignorant”

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve written more than one post criticizing non-standard usage on television and will probably write more.

A frequent opinion among the wonderful readers who take the time to comment is that I may have unreasonable expectations regarding the use of standard English on television.

One recent comment especially gave me pause:

…the misuse of pronouns is valid because that’s how people speak. It would sound odd to most people’s ears if a ‘normal’ character in a show spoke correctly rather than with the colloquialisms and oddities that have become intrinsic to spoken English.

Can this be true? Is there some kind of automatic disconnect between correct speech and colloquial speech?

I don’t think so.

Colloquial speech is informal, but it is not of necessity ungrammatical.

Trying to define such terms as “colloquialism” is always dangerous, especially nowadays when anti-authoritarianism is the dominant philosophy.

I think most of us would probably agree with these definitions of colloquialism:

an expression considered more appropriate to familiar conversation than to formal speech or to formal writing –Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

[words or expressions] characteristic of or only appropriate for ordinary, familiar or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing. –Wikipedia

It’s not always easy to distinguish between colloquialisms, regionalisms, and slang.

For example:
“Y’all” is a common expression in regional dialects, but it can also be considered a colloquialism since it is universally understood by most English speakers.

“Catch you later” may be slang, but if we continue to use it, it will be a colloquialism.

“Me and my mother went to the cabin that summer” is just bad English.

We can relax our speech without trashing conventional grammatical structure.

I grant you that “To whom do you wish to speak?” sounds stilted, but “My mother and I went to the cabin that summer” sounds, well–normal.

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9 Responses to ““Colloquial” Does Not Have to Equate with “Ignorant””

  • Brad K.

    Depending on circumstances, ‘proper’ grammar and word usage can offend an anti-authoritarian group – and can cause you to become the target of violence or other crimes.

    It is when you choose to associate with people invested in the culture taught in middle-American schools that using proper English reinforces each other. In that instance, proper language is an expression of respect to self and others, an expression of responsibility to be a role model and example to others.

    Experiments with whole-language reading, sight reading, and ebonics all infer that there are counter cultures with different values, including disdain for the proper use of the written word.

    While you and I might agree (mostly!) about the importance of learning precise and accurate language skills, of paying attention to clear and standard usage, we must remember that we share a country and a world that embraces other cultures.

    And all that without getting into the merits of speaking English vs. other languages, informally or in social, educational, legal, and political situations.

    As for the TV stuff, most of that is just ignorant writing and inept or missing proofreading. Sort of like me acknowledging one of my frequent mis-typings as, “Oh, I meant to invert the order of the ‘h’ and ‘e’ in ‘the’. I wanted to see if you would notice.” They messed up, and don’t care to admit their mistake. Of course, the writers can’t keep making mistakes unless their bosses – the producer, the director, the actors, and the advertisers, don’t care about speaking correctly.

    “All it takes for evil to flourish, is for good men to do nothing.” Evil in this case might be a bit strong – but, again, might not. Jargon created for use by a closed group can be quite divisive, both identifying members and excluding outsiders. I am not sure I like the French model, with a cabinet level Minister determining the usage and spelling of what we call ’email’, but adherence to standards, including proper language, can increase safety, productivity, and broaden acceptance. Proper written and spoken speech opens more doors to more opportunities – that homily still seems true today.

    Of course, I find “proper written language” to be a goal, not something I have achieved, yet. Witness how my use of HTML editors has created a bad habit – of using apostrophes, or as my jargon puts it “single quotes” – instead of quotation marks. I am not sure how I got started needing dashes in my sentences. It must have been in a science fiction novel I re-read a dozen times. *sigh*. Then there is the enclosing asterisks, to express “bold” in Internet markup-limited text boxes. Oh, the shortcomings of the Internet for limiting language so. But I do like the real-time spelling checking.

  • Wizbit

    Wow, I’ve been quoted! That’s very cool.

    To a certain extent, I do agree with you, but I hold to my previous statement that the loss and misuse of pronouns is valid in some circumstances. After all, it has been used many times over the years to illustrate ‘colloquialisms’ and ‘improper English’.

    For example, in the well known musical “My Fair Lady”, and its originator “Pygmalion”, the character of Eliza starts off as a London Flower Girl. To illustrate her ‘commonness’, George Bernard Shaw had her say the famous line: “I speak proper, I do.” By your arguments, he should never have done that. It is a misuse of grammar, but instead of resorting to the use of local words and terms that people outside of London may not have understood, he played with the grammar and sentence structure to highlight her lack of education and understanding of the English language.

  • Brad K.

    Wizbit, so .. the improper use of grade-school and high-school English on TV only happens to ‘color’ lower-class, ignorant characters?

  • Alice Peterson

    I believe that people who write for a living, as on tv, have a responsibility to maintain our language through study and application. Just because a large number of people do something, doesn’t make it right. Yes, it’s okay to show a person’s character through some use of language, but not to have EVERY character make similar mistakes! Teachable moment: the character misusing grammar or vocabulary might even be corrected by another character, yes?
    I’ve been rankled for a long time now by the overuse of the word “literally,” especially when misused. “Basically” is also overused. Television and movies take the lead for the ear in the use of English. If the characters, announcers and celebrities use these words, so will the general public. This is NOT a good thing. We are PAYING these people to speak for a living. They need to speak English correctly and clearly, even if it is at the expense of sounding completely “hip” or “cool.”

  • Maeve

    [In Pygmalion] the character of Eliza starts off as a London Flower Girl.  To illustrate her ‘commonness’, George Bernard Shaw had her say the famous line: “I speak proper, I do.” By your arguments, he should never have done that.

    I can’t think of any argument that I’ve made in this post or any other to suggest that I would fault Shaw for the deliciously low dialogue he puts into the mouth of Eliza Doolittle. Clean up her grammar, enunciation and pronunciation in the first act, and the play would be pointless.

    When I picture the DWT audience, I imagine speakers and writers of widely-differing backgrounds in English. Comments indicate that we have readers whose expertise matches or exceeds my own. I’m glad they enjoy our content.

    But I’m not writing for experts. And I’m not writing for the “anything goes” crowd.

    My posts are intended for people who, (like Eliza), have practical reasons for wanting to speak and write a standard form of English. My imagined reader wants to be able to tell the difference between non-standard English and usage that is commercially and socially acceptable according to middle class educational standards.

  • Trisha

    I love this post…and the comments! This very eloquently expresses a discussion I have been having of late with my boss regarding grammar used in an ebook we are developing for travel writers…..

    First I would like to say that I agree with your point – or what I am inferring as your point – that it is possible to write in the manner that most people now speak and still use proper english. Colloquialisms are fine, but poor grammar is not. It isn’t necessary to use the formal style in order to be grammatically correct, and in many cases being overly formal can make your words seem stiff and awkward when being read by others, since most people do not speak in the formal style.

    As for televisions shows, although I believe that there are instances where a character speaks poorly because the character is supposed to be ignorant (a sadly poor example for others but alas, reflective of reality), I’m fairly certain that the seemingly rampant use of poor english is due to poorly educated writers on those shows. Last year for Christmas we gave a donation to DonorsChoose.org, which raises money for under-funded school projects, after which we received a batch of handwritten thank-you letters from the students in the class we chose, as well as one from the teacher. These were young kids, so while I was impressed with their genuinely sincere gratitude, I wasn’t surprised to see spelling and grammar errors in their letters. I was, however, shocked to see how poorly their teacher’s letter was constructed! How can our students learn the proper use of english when their teachers are unable to lead by example?

    I realize that for every poorly educated teacher there are likely dozens, if not hundreds, of excellent teachers, but I suspect that this is a creeping blight that will ultimately spread as under-educated students graduate and go into fields such as advertising, journalism, or other fields where their words will impact other young and impressionable minds.

    I know that is already happening to some degree – watching television is not as enjoyable as it was years ago – I can get past an ignorant character’s skewering of the language, but all too often I find myself thinking something along the lines of “hmm….I believe he meant to use the word ‘perspective’ there instead of ‘perception'”. It’s clear that writers for film and television, as well as our news reporters and many others who appear on television, have lost the ability to use words correctly, or even to choose the correct word. The distraction lessens the entertainment value.

  • Natalie Wardel

    When I read this post, I thought of the recent election and how the commentators said “an historic moment” when it seems more natural to say a historic moment.

    They were being correct though, despite the awkwardness, and I commend them for it.

  • Maeve

    Natalie,
    I noticed that too.

    However, it seemed to me that some of the commentators were more comfortable with the construction than others.

    “An historic” is idiomatic when the words are run together and the stress falls on the second syllable of historic. It becomes self-conscious and unidiomatic when the speaker pauses after the “an” and then puts the stress on the first syllable of historic. Some of the commentators did that.

  • Christina P Kirschner

    I do not understand why one would say “an historic moment.” The “h” is not silent. I perfomred some research and found that once, many moons ago, it was silent. Since it it no longer silent, to use an “an” instead of an “a” is a rather archaic throwback. Language evolves over time, and this one really needs to get with the times.

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