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It's not bad grammar

The Baltimore Sun

Reactions to last week’s post on the “me and someone” construction have been various but predictable, one commenter stoutly refusing to countenance “bad grammar,” another sniffing that corruptions from speech shouldn’t be allowed into the language, and those who mistake assertion for argument saying, “That’s just wrong.”

All of those responses betray a misunderstanding of how language works. Let’s try to sort out their mistakes.

First, English is a big language. The dialects that we call standard English (spoken) and standard English (written)—which we could multiply further by adding (U.S.), (British), and others—are among many, each of which has a grammar.

In African-American Vernacular English, also called “black English,” “She nice” and “They acting silly” are not mistakes but part of the grammar of the dialect. Among the British regional dialects catalogued by the British Library, “Happen she were wearing a mask” is a grammatical construction. There’s nowt wrong with it. And, as I pointed out in “Me and you need to have a chat about grammar,” the “me and someone” construction is not an error but a grammatical construction common in casual speech.

There is no disputing that standard English is a prestige dialect. Mastering it opens the way to advancement in business and the professions, which is why we spend years teaching it in the schools and colleges. But disparaging people who speak and write in other dialects of English as “uneducated,” “lazy,” “sloppy,” or “ignorant” is merely a form of low-level bigotry that for some reason is still tolerated.

An additional mistake is to give the written dialect of English primacy over the spoken, as if written standard English were the “correct” form of the language and speech a corrupted version. People who think that have got the wrong end of the stick. Speech is the primary language, which we are learning in infancy long before schooling. Speech is where new words and new usages of old words arise, the place where language evolves.

While these points appear to come as news, and unwelcome news at that, to some of my readers, they are commonplaces among linguists. And yes, I also get the comments from people who think that linguists profess that “anything goes.” In that, they are like the people who disparaged Einstein’s theory of relativity because they thought it encouraged moral relativism. Don’t ignore the learning. If you profess to be a serious student of the language, while ignoring a century of linguistic research, you’re the one who is going to wind up looking ignorant.

I think that the best thing I can do at this point is to bring out once again my favorite passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language:

The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.

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