What To Do About Non-standard English

By Maeve Maddox

One of our readers expresses the dilemma faced by conscientious speakers and writers who value a standard form of English, but recognize that rapid changes are taking place.

So, just where do we draw the line? Now that I’m no longer a “prescriptivist,” what is acceptable? When can I start pulling out my hair again?!

Good question.

“Prescriptivist” is a dirty word, yet unadulterated descriptivism is not only impractical, it is impossible. Even the dictionaries that operate from a descriptivist perspective cannot possibly record every usage from every community of speakers. So, as the reader asks, where do we draw the line?

In this age of militant anti-authoritarianism, evangelical multi-culturalism, and pedagogical malpractice, it’s not an easy question to answer.

Language is an intensely personal matter. When it comes to usage and pronunciation, each user of the language has to decide where the line is to be drawn.

Advocates of standard English tend to feel blood pressure rising when they see or hear non-standard usage in what is felt to be an inappropriate context.

Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can annoy people no end. (Even when you do it on a language site.)

In the interest of keeping blood pressures down, I offer these guidelines for people who are “tearing their hair” over non-standard usage.

Recognize that even your fellow advocates may not agree with you as to what is or is not “standard” English
Numerous forms of British and American English are spoken in different parts of the world. Different forms are “standard” in different places.

Acknowledge that linguistic change is inevitable
The point of having a standard written dialect is not to fossilize the language, but to permit change to take place at a slower pace. Don’t object blindly to new usage merely because it’s new. Have valid reasons for your objections.

Know what you mean by “standard” English
Provide yourself with a good dictionary. Browse the style manuals and choose one or two that you find easy to use. Don’t hesitate to disagree with them if you have solid reasons for doing so. Cherish your own dialect and use it with those who can appreciate it. Use a standard dialect when you want to be understood by speakers not familiar with your home dialect.

Use non-standard English in context
In writing, consider your targeted audience and choose the most appropriate language for that audience.

If you’re a script writer, consider the occupations and backgrounds of the various characters in your story. Don’t have them all talk the same. For example, don’t have the characters with college degrees say things like Me and Professor Jones have created an algorithm, or, To celebrate my new tenure, I’ve made reservations for Sally and I at the French restaurant.

Model standard English
Correct your children’s grammar. Talk to them about word choice.

If you’re a teacher (any subject, not just English), model standard English to your students. Insist that they speak and write standard English in the context of school and schoolwork.

If you have the type of job that makes it appropriate for you to correct the usage of your staff (editor, office manager, etc.) go for it. Provide your employees with a style sheet and insist that they use standard English in writing, and when speaking to clients.

Be nice
Once your children are grown, bite your tongue.

Outside the role of a parent, teacher, or employer, don’t take on the responsibility of correcting other people’s English, unless they ask you to.

I see nothing wrong with pointing out errors that appear in printed sources. Advertisers, journalists, and others who use the language in a public way should be in command of standard English. Even then, corrective criticism can be offered in a courteous, helpful manner. There’s no need to accompany corrections with sarcasm, ridicule, or ad hominem attacks.

When it comes to our grown kinfolk, neighbors, or co-workers, we need to recognize that, like everything else in life, “standard English” has its place. It’s only one of several dialects. It may be the most universally useful, but it is not intrinsically “better” than any other.

Informal conversation is not public speaking. Jumping in to correct usage or pronunciation is not only inappropriate, it’s disrespectful.

You can promote “standard English” without trying to wipe out every other form.

Draw the line where you think it needs to be drawn in your use of the language. Let other speakers and writers make their own choices.

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14 Responses to “What To Do About Non-standard English”

  • T. Vilaça

    Now I can sleep in peace.

    Thanx for that once again!

  • Precise Edit

    What you ask is impossible if, in fact, you are a true descriptivist. We can’t model standard grammar nor can we point out errors because standard grammar is situational and errors don’t exist to a true descriptivist. (I see that you use “standard” grammar and not “correct” grammar. Wise you are, Maeve.)

    Instead, we have to be like Piaget and who studied his own children’s behavior and said, “Yup, that’s normal” (because all children act like his kids, even if not under the constant scrutiny of a deviant social researcher–who later denounced his findings, by the way).

    Characters: Unfortunately, and as a sign of the current higher education system’s failure to help students communicate professionally, I have heard colleagues with Master’s degrees make the exact grammatical errors you describe–both in speech (where I might overlook them) and in writing (where I’m forced to shake my head in dismay). But, alas, I never correct them. (They might feel compelled to point out my nearly obsessive use of parentheses.)

    We have to draw the line at some point and say, “This is right, but that’s wrong.” I get out my guns when 1) the use/misuse affects clarity, 2) when language use inhibits the ability of the reader to understand the writer’s intention, or 3) when it conveys an inappropriate tone or presumes an inappropriate relationship (No, Droop Dog, I am not your homie). Otherwise, I bite the bullet and keep my mouth shut and my red pen capped–unless, of course, I’m being paid to make the document “right.”

  • Tony Hearn

    Exactly so Maeve and Precise Edit. I am, though, close to buying a set of coloured and white adhesive labels to effect charitable relief to those oh so many poor souls afflicted by Misplaced Apostophe Syndrome.

  • Deb Kincaid

    One inherent meaning of the word good is active benevolence, taking the initiative to do good to the benefit of others, not oneself. I can call this post a good one because it is the most balanced view, most workable view, and most respectful view I’ve read on the topic. Excellent guidelines. I’m printing it out to keep posted near my desk so that I may refer to it often. Thank you.

  • Susan Leigh Babcock

    Maeve, you not only didn’t raise my blood pressure, you lowered my cholesterol! This is one of the most balanced, wise, and practical manifestos on English Language usage that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read A LOT! Your tone is reasonable and calm, and you allow for everyone while giving gentle guidelines for anyone. I will share this with my readers and friends (with attribution), and you have earned my respect and gratitude!

  • Droop Dogg (double gee’s)

    “In this age of militant anti-authoritarianism, evangelical multi-culturalism, and pedagogical malpractice…”

    Spectacular vernacular, MaddMaev! Also, with regard to myself being nice and to you’re seeing “nothing wrong with pointing out errors that appear in printed sources” admission:

    “Suggesting that one form of speech is preferable to another, however, can annoy people —>to<— no end. (Even when you do it on a language site.)"

    Your welcome…

    Droop Dogg (Unadulterated Descriptivisitor #6)

    (Am I doing this right?)

  • Peach

    I agree with the above poster. When I read “For example, don’t have the characters with college degrees say things like Me and Professor Jones have created an algorithm, or, To celebrate my new tenure, I’ve made reservations for Sally and I at the French restaurant.”, I laughed.

    A college degree is no guarantee that a person will speak or write proper English. In fact, having worked at the campus dining hall, I can tell you that a college education is no guarantee that a person will not point at a mushroom pizza and say “What is that?”

    “Ignorance is Blitz” is a fantastic collection of excerpts from real college essays (sent to me by a professor who was grateful to have at least one student who can formulate a decent sentence).

  • Peach

    PS – A great article overall. What a refreshing blend of good sense, good taste and good manners! I’m wishing there were a “share” button I could click to put this up on Facebook.

  • Ken Khelah

    What an etiquette article.

  • Maeve

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m going to put some of these comments on the wall by my desk.

  • ZenEmu

    Thanks. Nice article with a lot of good points and advice, especially for inexperienced writers.

  • mailav

    I am really thankful to the author of this post for making this lovely and informative article live here for us.We really appreciate ur effort.Keep up the good work.

  • Michael

    You should do an article on nonstandard spelling. In days of yore English words were not spelled the same way by all people, or even by the same person within one document. (See, for example, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which is full of “we” followed by “wee” followed by “wea.”) After centuries of standardized spelling, we seem to be entering an epoch in which people feel comfortable spelling words in various different ways as long as others understand what they’re saying. It would be good to see an article expressing an expert’s viewpoint of this emerging phenomenon (and I’ll even ghostwrite it for you if you want. 😉

  • Lonnie Hunkin

    I’m not a native speaker, understanding natives and non-native speaker speak English is a real challenge for me. Different people, different countries have different expressions for the same feeling or situations, so people like me end up not fully understand the message being sent.

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