WNW: Grammar as Currency
On last week's Word Nerd Wednesday, Jordan McCollum made a comment about how the "needs washed" usage can be considered standard if you live in an area where it is, well, standard.
We exchanged some emails about what constitutes "standard" and acceptable as far as English goes. I don't want to put words into Jordan's mouth, and she can always write about her opinion on the issue, but I thought the topic was worth addressing in a WNW post.
Here's my basic opinion on standard English and the "rules," keeping in mind that while I love language and am a total nerd about it, I am not an expert, nor a linguist. And Jordan has studied linguistics.
However, my dad is a linguist (I think word nerdery is genetic). We talk about this kind of stuff a lot, and I think it's largely thanks to his influence that I don't get overly annoyed by a lot of so-called grammatical mistakes in conversation or other casual settings, like emails and blog posts. I don't even care that on Twitter, there's a search feature for "Who to Follow" instead of "Whom."
For that matter, sometimes I find myself enjoying differences in speech patterns, as it's a peek into a different culture.
There was the time Dr. Oaks taught about how some people pronounce an R sound after an A, resulting in words like warshed instead of washed. I'd never heard anyone pronounce it like that, but lo and behold, just a few months later, I met a family who did. They warshed their warsh rags in the warshing machine.
I was fascinated. Dr. Oaks was right! How cool.
Jordan has a point that what's acceptable usage varies from area to area. I'd say that since such a huge portion of the world speaks English as a native language, you'll find variations within every country (and state) that speaks English. There's bound to be a wide range of what's considered okay in any one place.
On top of what's considered standard, most people speak in several "registers," meaning they slip into and out of various ways of talking depending on the context. So I'd use far more formal language when teaching a writing workshop than I would when chatting with my sister.
Another example: While we were dating, my husband mentioned how differently I spoke when I was around my high-school friends. At first I balked at the idea, saying that I didn't just change who I was when they showed up. But I watched myself after that, and his observation was right. My group of friends from that era had its own tone and even slang. It was natural to slip into it when around them and then slip out of it like a light jacket when I walked away. So natural I didn't notice I was doing it.
I've heard of corporate professionals who speak one way most of their days but then visit their parents back in the Bronx (or the Deep South or some other place) for Christmas and by New Year's, they're talking with a heavier accent again and using colloquial phrases they'd almost forgotten about.
This is normal. This if perfectly fine.
AND YET. (You could hear that coming, couldn't you?)
The standard exists for a reason. It's a collection of agreed-upon rules that marks what is expected of educated people in our culture. If you are educated, you're expected to know these rules.
In a social (and even economic) sense, standard English is the currency we use in our interactions.
That means it's valued. If you decide not to use it, fine. Just know that your language may prevent you from using the same currency, communicating (and succeeding!) in a way others who do use the standard will by default.
Because the standard is such a huge currency, it's a good idea to follow any rule in a situation that values the currency.
If you used their as a singular possessive pronoun in a resume, you may know that it's gradually becoming accepted usage, but a potential boss may not, thinking it's still a standard rule. The potential employer, knowing the currency of standard English, may well assume you don't know correct grammar and therefore aren't as smart or capable as you really are.
Just like you'd never wear a swim suit or pajamas to a job interview, you need to use the right language in the right settings to be taken seriously.
I've mentioned this idea before, particularly how a student called Dr. Oaks out on it, asking why we couldn't just turn in our papers using our regional dialects if they aren't inherently any more inferior or "wrong" than the standard.
Dr. Oaks just laughed and basically said, "Because you're at a university, that's why. Part of your education is to learn how to communicate using the standard dialect and then prove you know it in your writing."
In today's technological world, where pretty much everyone is required to communicate with the written word in virtually any job (even at McDonald's), knowing the rules and expectations goes a very, very long way.
As we shoot forward into the electronic future, it's going to be more and more important for our kids to have the currency they need to succeed, and that means knowing the standard language so they can communicate effectively, be taken seriously (as smart and capable!), and, frankly, to get ahead in life.
I've seen too many cases where someone uses their regional dialect in a setting where it simply isn't appropriate or welcome. The person is brushed off as incompetent or even unintelligent.
Sure, you can always fight back by saying that the people who judge you based on your language are wrong, narrow-minded, and not so smart themselves.
And you may be right.
But being right isn't going to get you the job.