Last Word Nerd Wednesday, I talked about how English changes, how it's useless to cling too hard to the "real" meaning of words and such that we can't see the natural evolution of the language.
It's an evolution that is happening, regardless of whether someone insists on "may" instead of "can" or cringes when someone says, "it sucks."
That's just the way it is. In that regard, I'm what could be called a descriptivist (someone who describes what's happening in language neutrally, without judgment).
But I'm also known affectionately among friends as the "Grammar Nazi." I wield a sharp red pen when I come across the misuse of lay/lie. My eye twitches at comma splices. So while I'm a descriptivist, I'm also a prescriptivist, meaning that in some areas, I insist that there are rules we should obey.
How can I be both? To explain, I'm going back to a class from my college days, taught by Dr. Oaks, my absolute favorite university teacher, hands down. He's a linguist (shocker, I know).
He talked one day about dialects and how no dialect is inherently superior to any other. That dialects aren't just random ways of talking; they have their own grammar and pronunciation rules, even when the people speaking them aren't aware of those rules.
It's quite wild, actually, to take a Standard English sentence, apply a few specific grammar rules, and end up with a sentence that is Black English Vernacular, or BEV (an actual dialect studied by linguists). We did this, although not in his class.
During his course, I loved going around and hearing the way other people talked. My grandmother-in-law was from the south, and she'd pronounce an [r] after [a] sometimes, as in,
"I need to get the warshing machine fixed."
When I hear things like that, I don't cringe. I think they're delightful differences. They're totally awesome.
Some students challenged Dr. Oaks, saying, "Well, if my dialect isn't inferior than any other, than can I turn in my research papers in my own dialect. You can't mark it down because it doesn't have the 'right' grammar, because there is no such thing."
Dr. Oaks just laughed (when he laughed, his whole body laughed and rumbled, and you couldn't help but laugh along). He shook his head and said, "Nice try."
Then he went on to explain that while it was true that no dialect is inherently superior from a linguistic standpoint, that one is generally selected by the educated population as the standard. That dialect is something educated people are expected to learn and be able to use. By extension, part of our college education was to learn to use the standard dialect and use it well.
In other words, even though Standard English isn't a superior to the "Spanish Fark" or Brooklyn versions of English, we'd better know how to use it, and he'd grade our papers, in part, based on our knowledge and ability to write in Standard English.
He also pointed out that most people aren't linguists (new flash), so people's perceptions about dialects make an impact. If you walk around using certain accents and dialects (or use them in a job interview), you may well be labeled as uneducated or unpolished. That won't help you get the job or be taken seriously.
The reality is, we are judged by how well we can use Standard English.
Even Standard English changes over time, but slower than conversational dialects (which is where "suck" and other words change first). That's where a lot of the debate rages on what's "right."
In some areas here, I'm easy going (like may/can), but on others, I like to hang onto the old versions even though I know full well the language is changing (I don't like "alright," preferring the original "all right." It's a losing battle, and I know it).
But here's the important part: Writers, of all people, need to know how to use the Standard English dialect. It's part of their job. Just like a doctor needs to know anatomy or a mechanic needs to understand how an engine is put together, a writer needs to know Standard English and how it works.
Being sloppy with the language is just lazy and shows a disregard for the profession and the reader on the other end. On the most basic level, a writer's job is to use the language well. Invisibly. If a writer can't do that, the story gets bogged down and can't shine through.
There are times in a novel where the writer can depart from the standard, of course, such as in dialogue and when characters have their own distinct way of speaking.
But here's the catch: to depart from the standard effectively, you need to know the standard in the first place. You can totally tell when a writer doesn't know the rules they're breaking. And when rules are broken well, you can tell that, too.
Readers who know the standard will judge you an incompetent if you flounder with it. Worse, if you don't know the rules (especially ones involving punctuation), you may say things you never intended, because language in print is different than spoken language. In print, you don't have the luxury of things like intonation and body language to make meanings clear. A misplaced comma on the page can add a totally different implication than the one you had in mind.
I'm okay being a descriptive/prescriptive paradox. I don't twitch if, in casual conversation, someone uses "laid" wrong. I don't twitch when I hear "warsh" instead of wash."
(Okay, I'll admit that sometimes I twitch with "fewer" versus "less" and "imply" versus "infer." Those are pet peeves.)
And rest assured, kind readers, I rarely flinch with grammar and punctuation issues on blogs, because in my mind, blogs are in the conversational category. They aren't generally intended to be professional publications.
(So no going all paranoid on me, k? Good. I also reserve the right to have typos on my blog. Glad we're all on the same page there. :D)
I DO twitch when I'm reading a published novel with massive errors (I wonder, does this writer just not care? Where were the editors and proofers?). I twitch when I see a t-shirt from a teaching conference with a typo. Basically, I twitch when people who are supposed to know the standard show their ignorance or laziness.
And yes, I admit that when my kids started picking up constructions like, The carpet needs vacuumed, I put a stop to it and corrected them, fast.
I don't mind hearing dialectal differences in other people (in fact, I find it really fun and love finding out where certain patterns hail from geographically), but I want my kids to have the best shot at success they can, and that includes knowing the standard dialect.
Even if they speak it with a Utah drawl.
I'll be taking a holiday bloggy break now.
Have the merriest of Christmases! See you soon!
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