Hey, it's your language

March 21, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Janet Byron Anderson (@janetbyronander) tweeted this morning, "Tell someone you're a linguist and they say, 'Oops! Better watch my language'. Please don't watch it. We value your syllables." English majors and copy editors, when they are incautious enough to identify themselves in public, get the same half-embarrassed, half-defiant response.

Really, you should talk as you like. That's your right. Sweet land of liberty.

No effort to establish an English Academy has ever gotten anywhere, and all such efforts amount to nothing more than magnets for cranks. There are various pieces of legislation, enacted and proposed, to make English the official language of some jurisdiction or another, but they do not and cannot specify what kind of English is acceptable, and would be unenforceable if they attempted to.

The peevers who write about language operate under an assumption that written English is superior to spoken English, is more correct than spoken English, and that the dialect called standard written English should be the way people both write and speak. Codswallop.*

Nothing is more democratic than English. It is what its speakers and writers collectively make of it over time, and that includes you.

Now, as with the exercise of any liberty, there are social constraints, as there are, say, with dress. A woman who chooses to wear those low-riding jeans that display buttock cleavage may have some difficulty being treated as a professional in the workplace, as might man with a mullet. In school or on the job or in social circumstances, you will encounter conventions that you will be expected to observe.

And in writing, of course, you will be expected to observe whatever conventions are appropriate for audience, occasion, and publication.

Some of those conventions may be nonsensical. You may have a teacher who insists on your following some idiosyncratic set of bogus rules when writing a paper. Your boss may be some tinpot authority insisting on antiquated stylistic conventions. In such circumstances, here is my advice: conform, but know better.

Apart from those constraints, you should speak and write as it pleases you. A linguist wants to hear how you use the language. An English teacher who corrects your grammar on a social occasion is merely rude. As an editor, as I have repeatedly reminded you, I don't edit you unless you engage me to do it for pay (or on this blog, for instructional purposes and fun).

And the band of peevers who will look down their noses at your English usage, you're afraid of them?

*Well, yes, I talk pretty much the same way that I write, but that's merely a personal aesthetic choice.

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