What To Do About Non-standard English
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?!
“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.
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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