Jessica's Blog

Considering the Myth of Standard English

Why is having proper grammar so important?  How can someone write a grammatically correct sentence when using improper grammar?  Last Monday in my Business Writing class the importance of Standard English came up in reference to using other languages when writing to publish in English.  Well, the first thing one should realize is the idea of “proper grammar” is a fallacy.  What most people see as proper grammar should actually be called Standard English.  No one can deny that other forms of English exist.  Consider how the speech patterns of the south vary from the north.  Think about how people from Boston and New York have a unique way of saying things that are recognizably non-standard.  Are these people talking improperly or are they just not speaking the standard way?  Remember what the point of a language is—to communicate verbally.  To bring the subject back to mixing foreign language and English into a work, people who can speak more than one language will have conversations in which they do something called code-switching. This is where a person switches back and forth between languages in a conversation. With all of this being said, why is it so important to use a standard form of language when we speak in a non-standard way all the time?

The problem arises when writing is introduced.  The argument goes that using “bad grammar” is slovenly; that one uses good grammar to show their mastery of the English language and therefore prove you know what you’re talking about.  In today’s world, this idea is true.  A written work is going to be taken far more seriously if it’s written in Standard English than if it’s written in Ebonics, but this doesn’t mean that people who speak Ebonics are wrong to do so.  More importantly, writing in non-standard form becomes especially important when wishing to show a personal voice in your work. This can easily be seen in non-fiction dialogue.  Think about Mark Twain; his work is full of Ebonic dialogue.  Then there’s the novel How to Kill a Mockingbird, where the narrator (a young southern girl) uses non-standard speech all the time.  Examples of non-standard speech in contemporary novels can be found constantly.  In fact, the next time you pick up a novel just take a moment to find where and why the author is using non-standard English because it’s most assuredly there—I promise!  Even in the academic world there is use of non-standard English.  The best examples of this have to be seen in my ethnographic novels where language-use is the main topic (in works such as Norma Mendoza-Denton’s Homegirls and Aaron Fox’s Real Country).  In such works, there are examples of non-standard dialogue given with Standard English used to narrate the work.

In my Business Writing class, one of the main examples used to illustrate an author mixing languages was an English children’s novel with Spanish words thrown in.  Although, I cannot be 100 percent sure for the reason why the author decided to do this, I can imagine that the child would have no problem with understanding a few words of Spanish.  Children’s works are written with the child learning to read in mind.  So, there would be context clues—and more importantly pictures—for the child to pick up on the meaning of the word he or she does not know.  I would also say that this book was written with the intention for children in Elementary schools that have bilingual programs.  That this book was written with the intention to help expose a child to a new language.

So, this example of a children’s novel shows that Standard English can be broken even in a children’s work.  The reason why it can be done is because of a child’s capacity to learn.  Furthermore, all of us understand the fluidity of language.  Look back at the history of the English language as it has evolved through written works.  Look at the English of Shakespeare, and then Poe, and then look at works written in the last decade.  They are all English and every English speaker has the ability to understand these works.  It is this, the human capacity to learn language, which allows an author to give shape to his or her work.

Here is one last gem to chew on.  Consider how the internet is blurring the distinction between standard and non-standard writing.  With services such chat rooms and instant messaging people can now use written language to communicate as if they were standing right in-front of one another.  This has caused a new non-standard form of English (as well as French and other foreign languages) that is strictly written based.


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