LINGUIST List 7.850

Sun Jun 9 1996

Disc: Non-standard grammar

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. <>, non-standard grammar

Message 1: non-standard grammar

Date: Fri, 07 Jun 1996 17:04:05 GMT
From: <> <>
Subject: non-standard grammar
I recently posted a query about linguists' views/practice on the use of
non-standard English, particularly in students' written work. There has
been a number of postings directly to the list, and I have received
comments from a number of correspondents directly. What has surprised me
is that almost without exception, the views expressed, while supporting
the use of non-standard varieties in speech, in some cases very
strongly, are almost unanimous in the view that standard English is the
only suitable form for writing, particularly in student assignments. The
main arguments put forward are:

(a) comprehensibility - if students could submit work in any
non-standard variety, the person marking the work might not be able to
understand it
(b) social and employment considerations - students need to acquire the
ability to write in the standard dialect because, whether we like it or
not, they will find it difficult to get a good job if they can't.

Since no one else has really done so, let me put a different viewpoint.
On (a) it is a reasonable expectation that writing (or any form of
communication) should be in a form which the intended readers/hearers
should be able to understand. Therefore, if you are writing a journal
article for a worldwide audience of academics, it might be a good idea to
use standard English. If, however, you speak a dialect which you know is
shared by the person marking your work, or is at least likely to be
understood by them, why should you have to use a different, standard
dialect in what you write?
Moreover, it seems to me that in most cases miscomprehension will be
infrequent. Here are some typical examples of non-standard usage from
student essays, which at least to me are perfectly comprehensible, even
out of context:

(1) This does not in no way mean that the theory is inadequate
(2) I have went through all of the data
(3) Labov done a number of studies in New York

As regards (b) above, it seems to me that, while we should perhaps make
students aware of the likely social consequences of using non-standard
English (and they are probably aware of them already), this does not
mean that we should condone this attitude. It seems to me that we are at
a stage with discrimination against non-standard dialect speakers where
we were some time ago with discrimination against people of different
races, religions, or sexual orientations; we may know that a student
of a certain race, social group or sexual orientation is likely to face
discrimination, but we don't (I hope) tell them that, in order to obtain
employment and be socially successful, they ought to pretend to be
otherwise. Why then should we go along with the view that they ought to
write in a dialect that is not their own, other than where
comprehensibility is a genuine issue?

It might be argued that it is easier to learn a new dialect than to
change race/religion/sexual orientation, but it seems to me that
research in linguistics shows that this means in fact abandoning one's
identity with a particular group, and is also not very easy to do
consistently for most people.

The fact is that, although no one 'speaks' standard written English, it
is much closer to the dialect of some, largely middle class, speakers,
than it is to that of others. Are we giving non-standard speakers the
message that, while their grammars are all right for some informal
purposes, they aren't good enough for serious uses?

I'm deliberately overstating the case here, but I did think someone
should contribute the opposite view from what appears to be the majority

Alison Henry
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