No need to demonize the demotic

An inquiry came over the transom yesterday from a reader who cringed at an American Idol contestant's use of "me and my mom" and "me and my sister," which the writer said was "like fingernails on a chalk board."

My standard reply is that I have my hands full editing the work of professional journalists for publication, and that people's speech, text messages, and other casual writings lie beyond the scope of my writ. 

But that is a dodge. Actually, I don't mind the "me ands" all that much.* I think that that statement would strike horror in the English teachers of my childhood, who were at considerable pains to browbeat us into talking proper.**

I suggest that you consider what it would be like if everyone spoke using the grammar of standard written English--that is, for example, if everyone were as pompous, polysyllabic, and priggish in speech as I am. You would recoil in horror. 

One of the pleasures of encountering demotic speech (from the Greek demos, "the people") lies in its variety in vocabulary and grammar, and yes, in its very vulgarity. One of the great satisfactions in reading the novels of Dickens is encountering his superb mimicry of the speech of a whole spectrum of ordinary people. It is the same pleasure we take in the narrative voice of Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  

And I'd sooner hear "me and my sister" than the hypercorrection "between my sister and I." Better to be honestly and openly vulgar than prissy and misguided. 

My initial enthusiasm for David Foster Wallace's defense of prescriptivism in "Authority and American Usage" wore off as I considered that his playful use of SNOOT as a term for an elitist language nerd*** does not succeed in concealing snootiness: mere class snobbery based on grammar and usage, no more endearing than any other form of class snobbery. 

So no, I do not aspire to correct other people's speech. It can't be done, as the ineffectiveness of generations of schoolroom hectoring has shown, and the game is not worth the candle.

Instead, I will listen to the common speech, which, even when it is "wrong," can still be interesting. 




*But the writer so disturbed by them might consider following my example by not watching American Idol.


**Not that that was ever a problem for me, precious little teacher's pet that I was.  

***And what else would you call me?

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