When Only Standard Usage Will Do

By Maeve Maddox

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When I began writing about English usage, I would label sentences as “correct” and “incorrect.”

I don’t do that anymore because what is “incorrect” in the standard dialect may be “correct” in one of the other dialects of English.

The English language is not a monolith, but a collection of “Englishes.”

According to some estimates, 160 English dialects are spoken across the globe.

Seven major regional dialects are recognized in the United States: Western, North Central, Northern, Midland, Southern, New York City, and Northern New England. Counting American sub-dialects—regional and ethnic—brings the number of US dialects as high as 30.

Every one of these dialects has distinctive vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, all of which are correct within the dialect.

My practice now is to use the terms “standard” and “nonstandard.”

In every major language, one of the dialects—usually the one spoken in locations of power—becomes known as the “standard.”

“Standard American English” (SAE) is the US version. This dialect is taught in schools and used in the context of business and the professions. An important aim of public education is (or should be) to enable all citizens to learn the standard dialect in addition to their home dialects.

Few, if any, speakers of SAE adhere strictly to standard usage. They sprinkle their speech with regionalisms and slang and sometimes deliberately choose nonstandard idioms for humor or emphasis.

For certain types of communication, however, standard usage is essential to the message. Even for readers who do not themselves speak SAE, an official document written in nonstandard English would trigger alarms. For example, nonstandard usage in a letter from the government or a doctor’s office would immediately mark the writer as untrustworthy and incompetent.

Standard usage is also important in the media.

For some publications, nonstandard usage is part of the brand, used intentionally to convey rebellion and lack of respect for social convention.

But for publications that wish to be seen as trustworthy, authoritative, and respectful of their readers, standard usage is the norm. Readers expect it from major national newspapers and editorial magazines. For that reason, I was taken aback to read the following passage in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times:

Were me and my students missing something about which our modern era is more enlightened?

Always on the hunt for examples of nonstandard usage in the media, I checked back later that day to collect the quotation and found that it had been corrected to:

Were my students and I missing something about which our modern era is more enlightened?

Every writer has lapses. The error had been noted and corrected. It was no longer fair game for my collection, so I let it go—until the following week.

Instead of letting it go on his side, the writer, John McWhorter, devoted his next column—with the provocative title of “You and me need to talk”—to the defense of his nonstandard use of me. He writes that he is aware that me as a subject word is nonstandard, but suggests that he has a special dispensation:

I’m aware of this “rule.” However, my being a linguist is much of why I often flout it.

He then goes on to write a column in which he describes shifting pronoun usage, as if writing a new article on a linguistic topic excuses the error in a column about a controversy related to a classroom showing of Laurence Olivier’s 1965 performance of Othello.

Linguists make important contributions to the study of language, but their specialty leads some of them to cultivate a position of disdain for the conventions of standard usage.

For linguists, language is like the text scrolling endlessly into space at the beginning of a Star Wars movie. The undeniable fact that language changes—and will continue to change—makes them impatient with finite rules of usage. Their reasoning seems to be, “After all, if language is going to change anyway, if yesterday’s mistake is going to become tomorrow’s rule, why bother with any linguistic conformity at all?”

Language does exist along a line of continual change, but it also exists at a given point in time. The “rule” about the function of me in 2021 may not matter in 2050, but it matters now.

No reputable style guide says otherwise.

Dr. McWhorter is not just a linguist. He is also a writer for a periodical whose readers expect people who “know the rules” to follow them.

Like McWhorter, Robert Lane Greene is a descriptivist who has no patience with “grammar grouches” (You Are What You Speak). Nevertheless, he recognizes that even descriptivists are bound by language conventions in the here and now:

There is a set of standard conventions everyone needs for formal writing and speaking. Except under unusual circumstances, you should use the grammar and vocabulary of standard written English for these purposes.

Former New York Times editor Theodore Bernstein once enumerated the characteristics of “good writing.” One of them is that good writing will “distract as few readers as possible.”

For many Times readers, all they will remember about the otherwise well written Othello piece is that misused pronoun.

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3 Responses to “When Only Standard Usage Will Do”

  • ApK

    Thank you for this. It’s sorely needed.
    Attitudes like those of the NYT writer you describe infuriate me. Sadly, in recent times, I’ve come to expect no better of the NYT or most media.
    We need to stop celebrating ignorance and the idea that selfish anarchy is the best way to “fight the system” and correct perceived societal wrongs.
    As for the non-standard English dialects, I get it, but I’m not aware of ANYWHERE where a speaker of standard English would be told “No, we don’t say ‘…my students and I…’ around here, we say “…me and my students….'” Things like that aren’t a “correct local grammar”. They are merely an absence of grammar, out of ignorance or apathy.

  • venqax

    Linguists are the worst thing that ever happened to language. The whole “descriptive” approach is intellectually bankrupt. If nothing is standardized, a language simply won’t work for long. This guy, I suspect, just made an ignorant mistake and tried to cover with the ancient “I meant to do it” cover. Linguists now probably don’t even learn proper language, so the mistake really isn’t surprising.

  • Maeve

    ApK and Venqax,
    I think Venqax has nailed the reason for the grammar lapse in this guy’s article. I have read many of his pieces and never have I noticed anything but standard usage. Something I didn’t expect: as much as I used to enjoy reading his articles, I now find that when I see his name I decide to skip his column, no matter how interesting it sounds from the headline. I wonder how many of his other readers have had the same reaction. As Dr. Johnson says in RASSELAS, “Every man may by examining his own mind guess what passes in the minds of others.” Other Times readers at any rate.

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