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Review of  Bad Language

Reviewer: Simo K. Määttä
Book Title: Bad Language
Book Author: Edwin L. Battistella
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.2210

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AUTHOR: Battistella, Edwin L.
TITLE: Bad Language
SUBTITLE: Are Some Words Better than Others?
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005

REVIEWER: Simo K. Määttä, Department of Languages and Translation Studies,
University of Tampere, Finland

This book provides an overview of the history and current issues related to
''Bad English,'' i.e., the complex question of whether certain varieties and
usages of the English language are inherently bad. The author adopts a
''realist position'' which acknowledges the importance of standard language
as the basis of the social history of English and emphasizes the fact that
educated people should understand this history, including the relations
between dialects, styles, and different languages. This position also
stresses the undeniable value of language norms and traditions while at the
same time acknowledging the role played by variation and innovation in the
evolution of language. The starting point is the fact that ''badness'' in
language is a phenomenon much more complex than generally admitted; the
core of the realist position resides in the understanding of the role of
linguistic variation and the constructed nature of the standard (21-22).
Indeed, the realist position is aimed at occupying the space between the
descriptive (notably linguistics) and prescriptive viewpoints (9, 20).

Bad Language focuses on American English and the linguistic situation of
the United States (indeed, Bad English might have been a more appropriate
title for international distribution). It explains concepts difficult to
grasp in plain yet sophisticated language and with numerous examples; in
addition, the phenomena under scrutiny are discussed not only in terms of
the current state of the arts but also with a detailed, documented
historical overview. The book thus provides valuable insights for scholars
and laypersons alike.

Battistella analyzes five domains in which the issue of ''bad English'' has
been particularly salient: writing, grammar, vocabulary, bilingualism, and
accents. The relativist position introduced in the first chapter is
elaborated in the final chapter through concrete examples and a summary and
refutation of the most important language ideologies (''images'') and false
assumptions discussed in earlier chapters.


Chapter One (3-22) provides an introduction to the phenomenon of bad
English and presents the above-mentioned idea of the realist position.
While the introduction starts with clear examples, it soon moves towards
the more complex issue of descriptivist and prescriptivist points of view.
Linguistic science represents the former and has been accused of
over-emphasis on relativism, even nihilism, by the most fervent adepts of
the latter. (Relativism in a ''paralinguistic'' sense, i.e., not related to
the battle of linguistic relativism/determinism but rather as a more
general ideology concerning the issue of whether things [and language among
them] have a fixed existence or not, a conceptual framework possibly
contingent upon an American political context.) In addition, due to the
belief that a certain manner of writing and speaking guarantees better
chances in life, prescriptivism concerns receive wide support from the
general public (11-12). Indeed, ''The treatment of language norms as
cultural commodity, as intellectual ability, as moral virtue, and as
political ideology provides a strong motivation for speakers to conform to
a standard that is associated with perceived refinement, intelligence,
education, character, and commitment to national unity or mainstream
political values'' (13).

Consistent with the idea that judgments about language are relative,
Chapter Two (23-40) deals with the relativity of good writing. Indeed,
complaints about bad writing are not new (23-24). The first part of the
chapter focuses on the teaching of writing: while the craft of writing is a
talent and depends on early familiarization with certain kinds of
discourse, it can be developed and taught through ''exposure, analysis,
modeling, and practice'' (24-25). However, professional communication values
efficiency, whereas college writing instruction often concentrates on
grammatical correctness. Again, a relativist position is needed in order to
satisfy both needs (28). An overview of the concepts of clarity and
directness concludes with the paradoxical observation that ''in one
instance, language is bad because it is seen as insufficiently rich; in the
other, language is perceived as bad because it is too complex'' (33). Style,
too, is relative; for example, the dominant literature of a particular
period has influenced the prose style of that era (34). The chapter
concludes with the observation that good writing can be defined only
through its effectiveness: it is convincing to a set of people in a given
situation. Thus, all good writing is controlled, logical, organized,
coherent, unified, and clear within a particular topic and to a given
audience (39).

Similar observations about effectiveness contingent upon the function and
the audience apply to grammar. Chapter Three, ''Bad Grammar'' (41-66)
explores two opposing views of grammar: the desire to create a standard
English that would no longer change, and the emphasis on changing usage as
a basis for the standard. The author proposes that ''linguistically informed
usage is the soundest basis for determining standards'' (42). While
prescriptive English grammar is imprecise (43), vague, and inconsistent,
which constitutes a hindrance to teach it efficiently (46), the tradition
of prescriptive grammar has indeed led to prescriptivism, i.e., a
pedagogical norm taking as a model the teaching of correct, prescriptive
grammar (46-47). This is consistent with the two main features of
prescriptive grammar: its alleged basis in extra-linguistic truth, logic,
and reason, and its supposed role in guaranteeing the integrity of language
and society. The opposite view, which emerged in England as early as in the
eighteenth century, emphasizes the importance of usage as the guideline for
grammatical correctness (48). Battistella illustrates the latter, inter
alia, by presenting the inconsistencies in arguments prescribing the usage
of 'hopefully' as an adverb modifying a whole sentence (50-51).

In the eighteenth century, incorrect usage was considered a reflection of
the low moral standards of the speaker (63). On the other hand, the triumph
of the prescriptive doctrine today is largely due to the persistent belief,
originated in the twentieth century, according to which using language
correctly is a key to economic success. This is not true, the author
suggests: many excellent language users are indeed economically challenged
(62). The chapter concludes with the observation that it is important for
educated people to know standard grammar, and that it is even more
important for them to understand the social history of English from which
grammar emanates and to acknowledge the limitations of standard grammar
(65). Indeed, an analytical and critical knowledge of standard grammar is
needed (66).

Chapter Four (67-100) deals with ''Bad Words'': offensive language, slang,
and political correctness. While many believe that profanity has increased
in the media, concerns about offensive language are not new (71). The
analysis of cases such as the definition of derogatory racial epithets in
dictionaries and the legal doctrine of ''fighting words'' (72-77) shows that
the issue of offensive language ''is not a simple matter of propriety or
impropriety but rather involves effects, intentions, rights, and identity''
(77). Indeed, bad words are a social construction (78-84) having to do with
cultural values such as the emphasis on public decorum in Victorian England
and frontier America or the penetration of coarse language into the public
sphere as a result of soldiers returning home from the Vietnam war.
Offensive language, too, is relative: the offensive character of language
depends on place, time, situation, person etc. (83).

The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to slang (84-90) and political
correctness (90-100). Using the example of the different meanings of the
word 'cup' in standard English (as opposed to, e.g., to the slang word
'cool'), the author refutes the argument according to which slang
vocabulary is undesirable because of its imprecise nature (88). Indeed,
slang per se does not destabilize language; rather, it destabilizes ''the
assumption that mainstream norms are shared by everyone'' -- this is
precisely the reason why slang has such a strong capability of constructing
identity (89). Politically correct language, on the other hand, should not
be treated as merely a political issue: indeed, its existence reflects the
fact that language change parallels social change. In addition, while
certain new terms aim at being inclusive, others consist of euphemisms
calling attention to groups (99).

According to Battistella, the 1950s critique on relativism in grammar has
been replaced by criticism according to which relativists today deny fixed
meaning in language, which, according to these critics, leads to ''a view of
truth as whatever supports liberation and social transformation.'' Thus, the
critique of relativism is today related to the rejection of objectivity in
postmodern literary theory (95-96). Critiques of political correctness
therefore consider it as thought control, nihilistic relativism,
accommodation of cultural victimization, a distraction from real social
problems, and leading to unclear, imprecise, and unspecific language (96).
However, as George Lakoff and others have pointed out, the American right
has its own euphemisms and ideological language policies (relativism, on
the other hand, is associated with the American left) (95). In conclusion,
while slang, offensive language, and political correctness all have ''the
ability to disturb the comfort level of the mainstream'' (99), they also
function as markers of cohesion within subgroups (100).

Chapter Five, ''Bad Citizens,'' (101-123) deals with the role of language in
the birth and the ongoing construction of the American nation. It includes
an informative political history of American English (102-105), a brief
overview of policies towards Native American languages (105-108), and an
account of the failure of teaching deaf children oral language rather than
American Sign Language (108-110). The last part of the chapter focuses on
the history of the attitudes and policies towards the languages of the
immigrants (110-113), particularly bilingual education (113-119) and the
English-Only movement (119-123), with numerous examples from relevant
research and court cases.

In the United States, language unity has been promoted for the sake of
national unity and economic productivity, with the idea of resolving social
differences and building inter-group understanding, and the fear of
political disunity and potential violence. The author concludes that
although there has been progress for instance in the revitalization and
preservation of Native American languages and the teaching of American Sign
Language, ''the perception of foreign languages seems to have changed little
since Theodore Roosevelt's 1917 statement extolling language as the symbol
of national unity'' (123).

Chapter Six, ''Bad Accents'' (125-148), considers not only pronunciation
issues (''Broken English,'' 127-130) and attitudes towards (the pronunciation
of) regional dialects (130-136) but also the Ebonics debate (137-147).
While ''broken English'' is seen as contaminating, confusing, and a barrier
to success (128), attitudes towards regional dialects are governed by
language ideologies relating dialect to people's character and abilities,
as research has often shown. In fact, Midwest dialects are perceived as
more neutral, which is reflected also in the fact that many American
companies base their telemarketing operations in the Middle West (133).
Dialects perceived as rural Southern or working class New York, on the
other hand, carry the most negative connotations (134-135). But dialects
cannot be just social disadvantages, otherwise they would disappear.
Rather, as Labov's study on dialect variation of Martha's Vineyard shows,
dialects continue to function as markers of identity in spite of the
increased exposure to the standard (136).

Battistella's discussion of the Ebonics debate concentrates on educational
aspects, which, as ''the consequences of the dialect,'' should be the key
issue (140). In conclusion, non-standard language, such as African-American
vernacular English, is often characterized as bad English (147), reflecting
assimilationism, i.e., the idea that the standard language, cultural, and
social values are based on the speech of certain mainstream groups (148).

Chapter Seven (''Images and Engagement'') consists of a consolidation and
review of the common objections to the so-called bad language, a summary of
the key ''images'' of language, and examples of language awareness projects
which show what modern linguistics can do in schools and communities. Three
assumptions underlie the divide between good and bad language: ''standard
language is a delicate organism or a fragile artifact,'' ''language is
primarily a tool for social efficiency and economic advancement,'' and
''language variation is a threat.'' From these premises, seven misconceptions
arise: 1) language reflects intelligence and nonstandard language reflects
unclear, incorrect thinking, 2) nonstandard language indicates weak
character, 3) nonstandard language corrupts language and moral standards,
especially those of the ''innocent,'' 4) in order to have one's voice heard,
standard English is needed, 5) a common viewpoint cannot exist without a
common language, 6) society is divided by language differences, and 7)
''descriptive linguistics is a permissive, nihilistic discipline'' (150).
After having refuted these misconceptions, the author explains the
persistence of these views by metaphors: ''the ease with which views of
language are framed by metaphors'' (154). The most prevalent images seem to
be represented by five metaphors: ''language as a living organism, language
as an artifact, language as capital, language as nation, and language as
thought'' (155). These images ''reinforce majoritarian assumptions about the
motivations and attitudes of different groups'' (157).

The remainder of the chapter focuses on the role of linguistics. ''For many
people, linguistics is English made hard,'' Battistella states (158).
Indeed, language questions are not taken seriously in America and linguists
should be more involved in language debates, assuming the role of a public
intellectual. And there is actually a long tradition of linguists
cooperating with schools and communities; examples of such projects are
presented on pp. 159-161. In conclusion, the failure of naïve notions of
good and bad language is due to mistaken premises about language and
speakers (162). Successful language policy, on the other hand, ''will
balance tradition and appropriate innovation, (...) be well-informed by
history and research rather than by metaphors about language and
misconceptions about speakers.'' Rather than simply evoking authority,
intelligent language use entails the explanation of choices from among the
various principles available (163): ''it is attention to the history of the
language and the relativity of usage that must be the goal'' (165).


Battistella's book provides valuable insights into the predominant language
ideologies of today's U.S.A. The historical reports accompanied with
several examples of scholarly writing, political speeches, court cases,
etc. are particularly informative and provide useful resources for
students, scholars, and laypersons alike. Equally interesting is the
explanation of images of language (term used by Battistella to account for
language ideologies) using the contemporary theory of the metaphor. The
attempt to redefine linguists' role in debates about language is also
particularly fruitful.

The book raises many intriguing questions for further inquiry and
exploration. For example, if the dominant kind of literature of a
particular era influences the prose style of that time (34), what is this
dominant literary genre of today's America? In fact, are dominant genres of
today literary or technical, oral or written?

As mentioned earlier, one of the book's main merits is that it explains
complex concepts in a straightforward yet quite comprehensive manner. This
is visible also in the way the monograph is structured in sections about
bad writing, grammar, words, citizens, and accents. However, this
organization is sometimes a constraint -- for example, it is not entirely
clear why the Ebonics debate is primarily a matter of accents. And while
the difficulties of defining the concepts are evoked, for instance, for
slang, offensive language, and political correctness, the very notion of
accent -- a contested concept par excellence -- is not questioned.

Clear oppositions make clear arguments. However, binary oppositions
occasionally masquerade the complexity of certain phenomena. Thus, for
example, the antagonism between the concepts of usage (48 and passim) and
prescriptionism seems somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, the fact that the 18th
century rhetoricians quoted in the book refer to a ''good'' usage of the best
authors (in a way reminiscent of the French 17th century doctrine of good
usage; see, e.g., Vaugelas 1647) seems to indicate that there was a close
link between usage and prescriptive grammar. Thus, it appears that usage is
a contested concept whose meaning has changed over the centuries.

While Bad Language is a valuable resource to anyone interested in language
ideologies, the politics of language, interpretive sociolinguistics, and
language policies, its focus and framework are entirely American. Indeed,
the classification critiqued in the previous paragraph becomes somewhat
more justified withing the specific context in which language issues in the
United States are evolving.


de Vaugelas, Claude Favre. Remarques sur la langue françoise utiles à ceux
qui veulent bien parler et escrire. Paris: Veuve J. Camusat - P. le Petit,

Simo K. Määttä (Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley, 2004) teaches
in the French program of the Department of Languages and Translation
Studies at the University of Tampere, Finland. His research interests
include language ideologies, discourse analysis of law, interpretative
sociolinguistics, and text linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0195172485
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 240
Prices: U.S. $ 29.95