Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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.


Jenny P. said...

I have pretty strong feelings about this, having grown up in the south where the southern dialect is pretty discernible. In my family, correct, or standard grammar has always been priority. Sound southern? Absolutely. But don't sound ignorant. I had a dental hygienist that came to give a report on one of my children. She said, "We done" when she began each of her sentences to detail the procedures my son had received. I bristled each time... she was a working professional. She'd been to college. In my opinion, she should have been instructed to not say, "We done this."

Maybe that's just me? I will also say that when I visit my father's family, deep in the heart of North Carolina, my southern roots definitely rise to the surface. I sound much more southern than I do on a general basis. But. Even when I sound southern, I still stick to "standard" grammar.

Lara Neves said...

While I mostly agree, I think that we do have to be okay with the standard gradually changing as the spoken language evolves.

Dogmatically clinging to a standard that NOBODY uses anymore will eventually lead to two different languages. Of course, that has to happen over hundreds of years, but letting the standard change in tiny ways helps.

But, mostly, I totally agree. It makes a big difference to how people perceive you when you know how to use standard English correctly.

Annette Lyon said...

Totally in your corner there. Which is why I use "their" as a singular possessive all the time (but not on a resume). Some rules I cling to that I know are dying (imply/infer), but I'm pretty lax on others (may/can). Language definitely evolves, and there's no point in denying it.

Knowing how it's evolved, how it's currently evolving, and what's still standard versus what's no longer a rule is somewhat of a tightrope, but it's worth figuring out how to walk!

Jordan McCollum said...

Well said, Annette. I do think that for many, many dialects, it's absolutely vital to learn a formal standard. I mean, you should learn in public school that "mensch" or "seddity" or even "We done" aren't standard.

But a construct so prevalent regionally as "needs done" is probably approved in school (I assume, since teachers and college professors allegedly use it in what would seem like formal registers). It's so specialized, I could conceive of it never being corrected, even if you went to college outside the region. (And frankly, I think this particular one would easily pass without notice, though others may not.)

However, I think we might be overestimating hiring managers' grasp of grammar ;) . I know that they say that a grammar mistake on your resume can mean automatic circular file, and I'm sure that's true in some companies, especially for egregious errors—but I've had my grammar, spelling and punctuation "corrected" too many times to trust those things to just anyone. (You know what I'm saying—that one copy editor, lay/lie error, mm hm.)

If you really listen to people speak extemporaneously even in a formal context like a job interview, grammatically they usually sound awful. (Mentally editing testimonies != faith building, I know.) Run on sentences, dangling modifiers, and sentence fragments abound. Most of the time, we don't even notice. I asked my husband who happens to be a hiring manager, and he said that generally, he cuts people slack for what they say during interviews. (He also thought "needs doing" and "needs done" both sounded weird.) Of course, he isn't hiring for an English professorship, so that standard varies too.

Another anecdote: my mother's degree is in English, too. She had an oral interview (exam, maybe?) with the Department Head (you know, Dr. William Shakespeare) to graduate. In the interview, she ended a sentence with an adjective . . . and then realized it should have been an adverb. Until Dr. Shakespeare moved on, my mother waged internal warfare over whether she should add the "ly," or whether that would make her look even dumber.

(She did not add it, and she passed.)

I think there aren't any easy answers when it comes to something that is taught as standard in one region but isn't standard in the whole of the language, or in another region. When you and every one around you don't know that your speech isn't "good book learnin," how could you know better? If we moved to PA, would we have to say "needs done" so we don't sound nonstandard? If the hiring manager was from OH and the job is in OH, do we need to adopt "needs done"? And what if our new OH boss corrects something we've submitted to include that? Should we correct him back? (I have no idea, but the last one doesn't sound wise.)

Annette Lyon said...

Jordan, I think we agree more than disagree. By and large, cases where something is standard only in one area are pretty rare. In general, the standard is the standard, and it is a currency on some level--even when some educated people don't get it.

And of course, the manager/job interview concept is just one example out of potentially thousands of situations where it's in a person's best interest to know and use the standard.

Angela Baarz said...

I like to refer to reverting back to old ways of speech (like with high school friends or when visiting family) as "revertigo" - a term coined on the TV show How I Met Your Mother.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Well said, Annette! I wish Twitter had more than 140 characters because I tried to quote one simple sentence and link back here.

"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."

Alexander said...

Interesting post!! I really like this site, and hope you will write more, thanks for your information.

Susan Anderson said...

You and I are just about exactly on the same page with this issue.



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