English is a big language

A recent article at Slate by Gretchen McCulloch, "Why Do You Think You're Right About Language? You're Not," prompts some fruitful thinking about idiolects. 

An idiolect is "not just vocabulary; it's everything from how we pronounce certain words to how we put them together to what we imagine they mean." It's the whole set of associations from regional origins, family habits of language, education, reading, and jobs. 

And English, the macro language, is the sum total of all our respective idiolects; it's crowdsourced.

As Ms. McCulloch says, "Your sense of English as a whole is really an abstract combination of all of the idiolects that you've experienced over the course of your life, especially at a young and formative age. The conversations you've had, the books you've read, the television you've watched: all of these give you a sense of what exists out there as possible variants on the English language. The elements that you hear more commonly, or the features that you prefer for whatever reason, are the ones you latch onto as prototypical."

The mistake people make when they sputter and fume about "bad English," as you can see in the comments on any online article about language, is to universalize from their idiolects, particularly that part of the idiolect influenced by English teachers in high school. 

English being a big language, not all idiolects communicate easily with others. That's not new; when the delegates convened for the Continental Congress, the New Englanders and the Southerners had difficulty understanding one another, owning to differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. Now that English is a world language, the number of idiolects is bewilderingly diverse. 

What I want to draw from her article is an awareness that what we call standard written English, or standard written American English, for our purposes here, is itself a collection of idiolects, and a broad one. 

We talk about standard written American English as if it were a thing, but it is instead a moving collection of individual and institutional preferences from which we draw generalizations. But even the authorities, and I speak here of the genuine ones, not the bogus practitioners, can disagree on register, syntax, usage, and pronunciation. 

When a writer develops a distinctive idiolect, we call it a style. 

I love H.L. Mencken's zesty style, the brio with which he smoothly shifts from formal syntax and vocabulary to colloquialism and hyperbole. Look at this passage from "Gamalielese," his article on Warren G. Harding's inaugural address, which I can never resist quoting:

"He writes the worst English I have even encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

That, mind you, is formal written American English. So is this, from an editorial in today's New York Times

"As this week’s events unfolded, it was alarming to learn of the swift capitulation of thousands of Iraqi Army troops who surrendered their weapons to the enemy and disappeared. After disbanding Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003 after the invasion by coalition forces and dismantling the government, the United States spent years and many billions of dollars building a new Iraqi Army, apparently for naught. The militants have captured untold quantities of American-supplied weaponry, including helicopters, and looted an estimated $425 million from Mosul’s banks."

And so is this, from today's Baltimore Sun sports section:

"Gausman gave the Orioles’ their fourth straight quality start. The Orioles’ beleaguered rotation -- the starters' 4.37 ERA heading into Thursday ranked 11th in the AL -- has suddenly caught steam. They've allowed just two runs in their last 27 innings over four games (0.67 ERA). Orioles starting pitchers have allowed two or fewer runs in 11 of the last 14 games."

Even in standard written American English, there is no one-size-fits all, in writing or in editing. This is why I keep reminding you to distinguish betwen rules, conventions, house style, superstitions, and shibboleths. Why I caution you not to elevate individual aesthetic preferences into rules. Why I keep hammering at the need to always take into account author, subject, occasion, register, publication, and audience. 

You start with your idiolect, but there's much more to English than that.



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