Gordon P. Hemsley

Linguist by day. Web developer by night.

My thoughts on Standard English

Posted by Gordon P. Hemsley on February 27, 2011

This post began as a comment on Facebook in response to Clark Whelton’s What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness and a follow-up to Language Log’s rebuttal, The curious specificity of speechwriters. But it quickly evolved into something that begins to express my feelings about the whole issue of Standard English and how it is taught in (U.S.) schools.

I was discussing these two articles with one of my former English teachers. While conceding that there is no set year (neither the 1985 that Whelton claims nor the 1977 that happens to come up in the LL research) for which the “decline” in writing began, he argued that the decline was indeed upon us. In particular, he claimed that “the idea of the decline in precise, informative, and effectively communicated language is well-founded”. I agreed, but only by reiterating what Mark Liberman wrote on LL:

In fact, the narratives of real children are typically full of detail. The use of appropriate summarizing abstractions develops later, as I understand it; and the ability to speak …at length without saying anything concrete at all is mastered fully only by mature politicians and their speechwriters.

I was claiming that language use is more detailed when we’re children, and it gets more and more simplified as we grow older, as body language and other supra-linguistic cues come into play.

My former English teacher sees the supposed increase of speaking (and writing) without saying anything as being “exacerbated by the gradual infusion of more and more text/IM language into our daily discourse”.

These are the points I brought up in response:

(1) With the advent of the Internet, young people are writing more every day than they used to. Writing has become an integral part of all facets of life, not just the “educated” parts. The difference is, Standard English is not always used online. Because it is not required to be. There are no grades for your writing online. There is nothing stopping you from just pounding the keyboard with your fist and publishing “cfgghjkhgfdjhyhendhxcb” for all the world to see. But that leads to my second point:

(2) Life has become less and less formal over the years. Equality and civil rights have improved, and there is less reason to worry about oppression for who you are or what you say. Thus, the distinction between spoken English and written English, which was once starkly contrasting, has been greatly diminished. People write what they speak, the way they speak. There is no longer any artificial restriction on the process, no translation necessary.

(3) And then there’s the education system. The way English and writing is taught in schools (and I’m not by any means singling any particular teacher out), it’s as if these arbitrary rules are still the only thing out there. The five-paragraph essay, for example. Or the idea that you somehow have to use big words and long sentences to get your point across. Not ending a sentence with a preposition. The list goes on. These are all things that are taught in school, implicitly or explicitly, as if they are the be-all, end-all way to write. Thus, the idea of Standard English that a student has in their head by the time they reach high school and college is so completely skewed from what good writing is that it all becomes incoherent.

So time should not be spent blaming students for their poor writing. It should be spent reforming the system, one step at a time, to eliminate the inconsistencies, dispel the myths, and create better writers. And it should do so by working with the reality that students experience outside of school, not against it, as if school was some alternate dimension where all the rules are different. (This, incidentally, was also the argument behind the ill-fated “Ebonics” debate way-back-when. Teach students in the language and life they already know, and they’ll be better able to see—and take advantage of—the connection between that life and what you’re trying to teach them.)

Then maybe we can knock off all this complaining about bad writing and get back to actually producing something worth reading for a change.

Note: This post was more or less complete by the evening of February 27, but I didn’t get around to publishing it until March 6.

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