You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Gladly learn, and gladly teach

It’s usually idle to argue with people who make comments on posts, but a remark by one Dave Lundy on one of my recent videos could be fruitful: “This clown who wont accept common usage of Merican English telling others to adapt.”

When I was in elementary school in Fleming County, Kentucky in the 1960s, my English teachers were very particular about distinguishing learn and teach. I learned standard English grammar, and now I teach it to Loyola undergraduates. My teachers actively discouraged a construction I regularly heard from fellow students: “I’ll learn you not to do that.”

My wife, Kathleen Capcara, who grew up in cosmopolitan Columbus, Ohio, never had such instruction. For her, it wasn’t needed. But I grew up in Appalachia, where learn in the sense of “to impart knowledge” survived in relative isolation from the dialect of eighteenth-century British immigrants to America.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists that sense in Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382 and quotes Coverdale’s Bible of 1535: Psalm 24’s “Lede me in thy trueth and learn me.” That sense of learn also appears in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding: “That my Father might learne me to speak without this wicked way of swearing.

So learn in that sense is not “bad English” or “illiterate English.” It’s dated English, or dialect English, just not current standard English. Of course, if you use it, people will think you’re a hick, but that’s snobbery and ignorance of history, not grammar.

This distinction, that there are many Englishes, is one the peeververein are oddly reluctant to grasp.

The dialect we call African American Vernacular English, or “black English,” is another example of dialect. It has a grammar whose particular features have been described by linguists. The use of me in a conjoined subject (“Me and Amy are going to the mall”) is a common feature in non-standard English that follows regular grammatical principles. It is just out of place in formal standard writing.

But to the peeververein there is only One True English, typically with the schoolroom grammar and usage they encountered at puberty, and all else is error, illiteracy, and the Decline of the West. And if you point out that non-standard dialects have a grammatical consistency in their own right, you’re denounced as a subversive, a turncoat, a quisling.

When I am at my desk down at the paragraph factory, my job is to ensure that The Sun publishes texts within the registers of standard written English. That means that every day, as I have been doing for nearly forty years, I am making reporters’ subjects and verbs agree, correcting misuses of whom (reliably wrong at least half the time), and sorting out their homonyms. If Mr. Lundy thinks that I shrink from altering copy for these purposes, or scorn standard usage, he might ask present and past Sun reporters whether they got edited.

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