Wednesday, December 24, 2008

WNW: I'm a Paradox

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!


Shauna said...

Hope you have a blessed and very Merry Christmas! ♥ Hugs :) Shauna

Cheryl said...

I'm pretty easy going about it all but I have to say it really bugs me when I see daycares/preschools that are called kiddie kastle or kollege or any of the dozens of names I've seen like them. It amazes me that they would spell a word wrong on purpose at a place of learning (supposedly).

Jami said...

Its rilly mean win sumone knows you're pets peeve than uses them aginst you, win my Mom told us she hated the words OINTMENT and PUS we tortered her by useing thim literally ALL the time.

Merry Christmas, Annette. Have a joyous holiday!

Heidi said...

Absolutely fascinating! So, what you're saying is that "alright" is now all right to use? I don't know if I can stand it! (aughh!)
Merry Merry Christmas, Annette!

Alyson | New England Living said...

I find dialects fascinating. I'm always picking up on them. The one that gets me about New England (and it's also true of old England) is that they add an "r" to words that end in "a". They always say they have an idear instead of idea. Even my 6 year old said it last week! I'm raising a bunch of yankees!

Kristina P. said...

I don't have a problem with dialect. However, I do have a problem with poor grammar, and there is a difference.

BTW, my brother is buying his wife one of your books for Christmas. Yay!

I hope you and your family have a very merry Christmas!

Lara Neves said...

Love your WNW's. This one was very fun to you'll have to give us lessons on standard English usage.

Merry Christmas!!

Sandra said...

Merry Christmas Annette!

Rebecca Blevins said...

Merry Christmas to you too!

I'm glad you instructed us not to go paranoid on you, because I was. Almost hyperventilating, in fact.

Nearly everything I've learned about punctuation and grammar are from reading. This post is very informative and interesting!

Here in the midwest people say "needs done" all the time and it drives me nuts! "needs TO BE done", not "needs done".

Julie Wright said...

I wonder how many of these things I do . . .

Alison Wonderland said...

I'm pro alright (sorry) and I'm still working on lay/lie. And oh my goodness, I've completely picked up the Utah drawl. I grew up just outside of DC, with the kids of Senators and Congressmen where standard was standard. I even occasionally h ear myself using Utahisms. *Sigh*

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Little GrumpyAngel said...

I totally agree with you, even though oft times I'm one of the rule-breakers :-) I was raised in a country with 700+ dialects. English is practiccaly my 3rd language (after my dialect and the national language) so some of the rules still perplexes me. I learned English in the classroom so I guess I speak standard English . It shocked me at first to realize I speak and spell better standard English than some Americans :-) Then of course I went and married the Grammar police, and gave birth to a daughter whose classmates call her the writing class Nazi :-) My family still good-naturedly makes fun of the way I use, er--mangle---the English language, but they know I have a great deal of respect for the language and I love learning from those like you who know and respect the rules. It helps me become better, which is the goal.

Jenna said...

I'm sure you pretty much go into seizure mode over at my blog, but I do what I can. I trip up on some of those rules from time to time, I know it. Feel free to correct me. Privately, please. I mean it. I need good mentors, and we can't leave it all up to Luisa. The woman's insanely busy!

Hope your Christmas was wonderful!

LisAway said...

I found two typos in this post.

KIDDING!! (I mean I did, but kidding about the pointing it out, especially since I'm awful about that on my own blog)

I wish we were neighbors so you could teach me all about correct punctuations. I just know, that I don't know, what's correct; so I just stick, commas, (and parenthesis) all over the place and feel pretty sure that they're probably in the right places, and in many of the wrong ones, too.

And how do you feel about "ones" like I used it in that last sentence? That's one I'm not too sure about either.

Love WNW

And I got my truffle bar!! MINT!!! I LOVE MINT AND CHOCOLATE!! Thank you so much, Annette!

Larsens said...

Sadly, I must confess that I didn't hire the woman from Spanish Fork who applied for the receptionist position. She announced at the beginning of the interview:"I ain't gonna write no papers!"

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family.

derekstaff said...

I appreciated your comments standing up for Mormon lit on FeministMormonHousewives, despite generally being antagonistic to Mormon Lit myself. In case you are no longer following the thread, I wanted you to know I'm inspired to give some Mormon lit another shot.

Interesting thread. I'm fascinated by linguistics, and find myself in the curious position of being an anti-prescriptivist while still being peeved by various grammar "rules" (the imply/infer issue, use of first person pronouns, etc).

On the other hand, I am very much a fan of the use of appropriate dialects in storytelling. I am a big fan of Mark Twain if for no other reason than his role in reducing the very stilted, contrived, formal language in English literature (something I really wish our GAs would learn; I am always amazed at how verbally precocious are the children in every story ever told by President Monson...). storytellers and writers should be more conscious about keeping the dialogue consistent with the nature of the characters.

Annette Lyon said...

Derek, Thanks for your note; I really appreciate it. If you'd like a list of titles or authors to start with, I can point you toward some of the better stuff--because as I said, there's still plenty of bad LDS lit out there. E-mail me if you'd like some ideas.

And I'm like you--while I love dialects and such, I still have certain grammar issues that make me twitch. Imply/infer is definitely one of them. Thanks again for dropping by.

Jules AF said...

Oh my gosh! Dr. Oaks was my favorite teacher! He's the one who inspired me to do ELang as my major. I took 2 more classes from him because I loved the way he taught and how easily I could learn from him! I LOOOOOVE him.

tanyaa said...
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