Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Proper English

My post on "Pet Linguistic Peeves" continues to draw responses long after it was published and this inspires me to take on the Defenders of the English Language, namely those who are offended by those who don't like nobody who uses double negatives or ain't happy with people who use "ain't" or busy theirselves with criticizing those who do not use reflexive pronouns properly.

One thing that amuses me is how this "offensive" language is characterized. Some refer to it as "bad English," others say is is "incorrect English," and still others would call it "improper English." I especially like "bad English," as apparently does the rock group "Bad English." The title song of their first albumn was called "Bad English." Oddly, while the lyrics of the song "Bad English" are bad poetry, I wouldn't say they employ "bad English." Perhaps I missed something.

One thing we should be absolutely clear on is that nonstandard dialects, i. e., dialects that employ "bad English," are not linguistically inferior to standard English. In fact, in some respects they are superior. Consider, for instance, that nasty word "ain't." In Standard English, our paradigm for contracted negative forms of the verb "be" in the present tense is
I **** going. We aren't going.
You aren't going. You aren't going.
She isn't going. They aren't going.

where "****" signifies the lack of a form. One nonstandard paradigm is
I ain't going. We ain't going.
You ain't going. You ain't going.
She ain't going. They ain't going.
What is wrong with this latter dialect? One might say that the contracted forms don't distinguish among the persons. The problem with that is that Standard English doesn't do so in the plural half of the paradigm. We use exactly the same form. In any event, the subject pronoun makes perfectly clear whether the speaker is employing the first person, second person, or third person. One might argue that the nonstandard dialect doesn't distinguish the singular from the plural forms. Sadly, for that argument, neither does Standard English in the second person. Moreover, except for the second person, the subject in the nonstandar paradigm clearly indicates whether a single person or more than one person is going. So, the arguments against the nonstandard paradigm fall flat on their faces.

There is one quite compelling reason to say that the Standard English paradigm is inferior to the nonstandard one. This reason is the absence of a form in the first person singular. It can't be a good thing for a dialect to fail to give its speakers a form to use when they wish to say "I negative-be-form going" to an intimate or in a causal gathering of people where informal English is the norm. Speakers can employ "am not," of course but that is a construction more appropriate to a formal occasions.

Let the slings and arrows of outraged linguistic sensibilities loose.

Another example demonstrating my claim that nonstandard varieties of English can be superior to Standard English is provided by reflexive pronouns. In Standard English we have

I like myself. We like ourselves.
You like yourself. You like yourselves.
He likes himself They like themselves.
She likes herself.

Typical nonstandard varieties have

I like myself. We like ourselves.
You like yourself. You like yourselves.
He likes hiself. They like theirselves.
She likes herself.

In Standard English, we use posessive pronouns ("my," "your,","our," in the first and second person but accusative prounouns ("him" and "they") in the third person as the base pronoun. The pronoun "her" goes both ways. Why in the world would a dialect want to do a thing like that? It makes no sense whatever. The nonstandard dialect given above is perfectly regular, using the possessive pronoun in all persons. I would think that having a rule with no exceptions is better than one with exceptions.

A more complex, and perhaps problematic, example that arguably favors the nonstandard variety concerns negative sentences. In Standard English, we use the morpheme "any" to mark when a word is in the scope of negation (an occurence of "not" whether contracted or not), as in

He isn't going anywhere with anyone tonight.

The nonstandard variety has

He isn't going nowhere with no one tonight.
In this dialect, speakers mark elements that are in the scope of negation with a semantically redundant negative marker. This irritates the hell out of English teachers and other Guardians of Linguistic Faith. Arguably, the nonstandard dialect wins again for it is more iconic to mark when a word is in the scope of the negative (is part of what is being negated) with a negative morpheme than with some other morpheme with no inherent relationship to negation. Interestingly, the nonstandard dialect is not unusual for it is common to handle negation in this way in langauges.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

" He isn't going anywhere with anyone tonight.

The nonstandard variety has

He isn't going nowhere with noone tonight."

But you had to stand meaning on its head to win that trick, because "isn't going nowhere" compels him to be on his way to somewhere by sunrise.

2:42 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In fact, you are wrong. English is not subject to the rule of double negation of formal logic -- not, not P = P -- and the fact that you and everyone else who speaks English understand "He isn't going nowhere" to mean the same thing as "He isn't going anywhere" proves the point.

The rule of double negation works in English for something like "Its not true that I didn't see her," which means `I saw her.' In this case, though, the negatives are in different clauses.

I see that it is time for a blog on how English and logic differ.

7:09 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this parallel somewhere, but I can't recall where. Let's say -1 is negation. Then the way that standard English deals with two negations is like multiplying them: (-1)*(-1)=1, or two negatives making a positive statement.

What some other languages and nonstandard English do is more like addition. You have two negations and add them up: (-1) + (-1) = -2. Possibly a more emphatic negation.

One could say that these different options involve following different kinds of "algebraic" logic, and one isn't in any way more natural than the other.

I might add as an aside that my native language, Finnish, doesn't allow the sort of double negation like dialectal English has. I don't know why, exactly, but if I try it, it doesn't even sound grammatical. Perhaps negation being expressed with an inflecting auxiliary verb (like don't, doesn't, but for all persons) has something to do with it. You can still use negation and the equivalent of un-prefix to cancel each other out, though. (eg. I am not unkind.)

I look forward to reading about natural language and logic later, Language Guy. I'm sure you have interesting things to say about that.

8:22 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Interesting, Pekka. The problem is that English really isn't a species of algebra but to account for the conventional meanings of sentences one must employ formal means, arguably intensional logic.

In the same way, while we do mean to be making claims that admit of truth or falsity, we do not use truth-tables for connectives like "if" and "or" and the like. Maybe we can pick this up when I do my next blog.

Right now I am struggling to learn CSS to improve my web site.

6:20 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I only offered it as a parallel, by which I mean it is not supposed to have much explanatory value.

The Wason "card-trick" (I think it is well known) is also an interesting illustration of how formal logic does not come naturally to most people. It's the one that involves testing a prediction about cards that have letters on one side and numbers on another.

This came up with a web-search in case other readers are curious:


2:59 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Pekka, you are right about people's inability to perform well on validity judgements. This attacks the heart both of any view that we employ the principles of valid reasoning. I made my case in a paper in "Meaning, Form, and Use in Context, ed. by Deborah Shiffrin, published by Georgetown U. Press in 1984. There is an interesting paper by Phillip Johson-Laird I was surpised to see available on the web taking a similar view to those you and I hold at this site

7:19 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I left out the second conjunct of a sentence. This attacks the heart both of any view that we employ the principles of valid reasoning and of the use of validity judgements by semanticians in doing semantics. These validity judgements they employ are alien to regular folks.

I would add that it is surely better to hold the view that we employ a nonformal mode of reasoning in daily life and that we are good at it than the view that we employ some form of formal logic and are bad at that.

7:23 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Language guy, you rail against the "Defenders of the English Language", in a reasonable and well argued way. Many of the DotEL are cranks. I wonder, however, at the subtitle of your blog where you state "You can think of it as a linguistic self defense course in which you and I prepare ourselves to do battle with the forces of linguistic evil."

If there is no such thing as "Proper English" what are the forces of Linguistic Evil? Is it solely the DotEL? Or are there other insidious forces we need to beware against?

10:45 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

By employing "forces of linguistic evil," I meant to be making a joking reference to such people as advertisers and politicians who use language in duplicitous ways to exploit people. However, the "Defenders of the English Language" constitute an instance as well for it includes people who wish to pass laws making English the official language of the USA, which is a thinly disguised attack against linguistic minorities, including especially Hispancis. And it includes people who use Standard English as a battering ram against speakers of certain dialects, most notably African Americans. Indeed, putting down how someone talks, as racist Whites as sometimes inclined to do (recall the Ebonics debate/debacle a few years back), remains the last Politically Correct way of putting African Americans down. Who knows what evil lies in the hearts of those who hold up their way of speaking the langauge as the only acceptable way?

12:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened to "I'm not going" as an informal alternative? That's grammatically and socially acceptable to most people, even if the exact structure isn't parallel to the one used in other persons/numbers.

4:40 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Ingeborg, the problem with your proposal is that your alternative is part of formal style while the other forms in the paradigm are part of informal style. This is, I think, why "I ain't going" is so popular. It fills the gap in the paradigm.

6:16 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of my former English teachers would disagree that contractions like "I'm" are "part of formal style"; as clichéd as the phrase "agree to disagree" has become now, it seems we should do just that.

11:22 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Ingebord, I suppose that too much hangs on what "formal" vs "informal" style means to we disputants to be very dogmatic about the issue. The fact is that standard English has a "hole" in one of it's paradigms and nonstandard varieties do not have one in the corresponding paradigm, which is the only point I really cared to make.

3:35 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Brian, I taught in England around 10 years ago, and though I knew there would be dialect differences, I was quite unprepared for the incredible number of differences there were. I made the mistake of referring to my fanny pack as my "fanny pack." It seems it refers to the front side of a female not the back side of everyone.

Where we get the biggest differences is in colloquial speech and that, of course, is what I had to deal with the most when out of class. In the classroom there were relatively few issues.

7:44 AM

Blogger JC said...

Hi Mike,

This is my first time here. I have so much more to read, but wanted to add a comment now.

~Disclaimer: I am not an English language expert. I will always have more to learn about my native language.~

Having said that, I noticed something right away when I first read the title and subtitle of your blog. Did you know that "self-defense" is a hyphenated word?

In any event, I will continue reading on throughout your many pages.



2:45 PM

Blogger TC said...

The real issue with "correct english" is the standarization of language: it is a false phenomenon.

Whatever is the dialect of those in power is the "right" way to speak. But, if the goal of langauge is to communicate, what's wrong with using "ain't"? The point gets across, right?

Of course, maybe I'm biased. I'm a black southerner who's a quarter Jamaican and a quarter Dominican.
Non-standard dialects are in my blood.

1:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the word "certificated"
which is, in my opinion, totaly wrongly used by the Calif Education bureauRATS !

Should it not be just certified ?

response appreciated :-)

10:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,
Friend said I was wrong the other day when I said, "I would like that Coke with no ice.
He said, "with" is wrong.
Is he right?

3:40 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Hi - We have had some discussion in our family regarding this type of question "where are you at?" or should it be said "where are you?". Please let us know which is correct.

10:35 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Did you discuss "Where are you going to?" It perfectly parallels "Where is he at?" "To" (direction) and "at" (static location) are the default prepositions for the two concepts of diretion and location. I argued in 1963 that the first "where" is equivalent to "to what place" and that the second is equivalent to "at which place." That would mean that, as seems true, that both are redundant in these cases, with the "at" case sounding odder than the "to" case. This sort of redundancy is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a war in language between ease of production and ease of perception of sentences. The use of "to" and "at" seem to be a case where speakers are going for greater clarity, i. e., ease of perception. Omission of the preposition makes the utterance easier to say because it is shorter. I think we are in the midst of a language change favoring use of the prepositions.

7:48 AM

Blogger gobbarrett said...

If I wanted to say "I could have done that", can I replace the word have with of and still be considered proper english, ie. "i could of done that"

11:08 PM

Blogger BigBoss88 said...

What is the difference between "broke" an "broken"? I was recently told that "broke" means without money and "Broken" means something that is split a part. Would it actually be poor word usage to say "He broke my heart"?

2:32 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Word meaning in the absence of a sentential context isn't determinable in most cases. Yours involving "broke" and "broken" is an example. For "He is broke" "broke" pretty much has to mean "devoid of money" and "It is broke" is awful sounding to my ear. "It is broken" would be fine.
"He is broken" pretty much means something like "He has been rendered penniless and without hope of recovery."

7:24 AM

Blogger lcantu said...

Ok is using "Every people" in a sentence proper English? For example... Every people have made an alcoholic beverage. Isn't it Every person or culture?

10:32 PM

Blogger rastas said...

Your comments please on the following: Why do so many people use the word got in a sentence. Example: We have got to play better defense if we expect to win the game. Wouldn't the proper english be: We have to play better defense if we expect to win the game.


5:39 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Normally, we linguists tend not to make judgmental comments as to how people speak or write. Your objection seems to be that "got" is simply unnecessary, adding nothing to the sentence. I think that what it adds is an emphasis on the necessity of the action being taken. It is a bit more emphatic. We often allow for extra verbiage for emphasis, as in "very, very mad at her" which uses the same word. "Got" and "have" both express necessity.

6:02 PM

Blogger KMM said...

Will you please tell me if the statement below is written properly? "An important way the Leaders accomplish leadership and social change activities is through their biannual Summer Leadership Conference." Can you accomplish leadership or social change activities?
Thank you very much for your assistance.

9:34 AM

Blogger BigBoss88 said...

"One important way that Leaders can accomplish influence is through social change. The biannual Summer Leadership Conference uses activities to facilitate these changes."

The following question does not make sense: “Can you accomplish leadership or social change activities?”

Is the person asking this question, asking for someone to choose between leadership or activities?

10:02 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Though I understand the writer, it is lousy style. I wpuldn't say it is ungrammatical per se since the form is okay. The Meaning not so much. How would you restate this?

10:47 AM

Blogger tobiasfoto said...

I have often heard 'an historic event', but 'a history lesson'. What is the proper usage?

1:39 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Is it proper to say "I am mad at you"?
If so, why can't we say "I am sad at you"?

9:02 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

"mad" is a transitive adjective: X is mad at Y. "sad" is intransitive: X is sad.

8:49 AM

Blogger Condor said...

I become so frustrated when I see the phrase "'till" when the abbreviation is from the word "until" and should be "'til".
After all, a "till" is a "cash register" and not "until". This phrase is used world-wide - incorrectly!

9:57 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Condor, you have provided a compelling argument for the "correctness" of "till" I am sorry to say. I shall go to the grave using "til."

8:59 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

I have a question. I am from New Orleans and grew up saying, "Who is it for?" (I am asking who is the owner of an item) My boyfriend always corrects me saying that it sounds like I am asking if the item is a gift and that I should say, "Who does it belong to?" Is my way completely wrong?

1:38 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Clearly, your boyfriend's dialect is in the majority, the vast majority I would guess, and I can't think of how your way of asking this fits semantically. I did find this at dictionary.com.

"intended to belong to, or be used in connection with: equipment for the army; a closet for dishes. "

It sort of fits your use. It is the second usage. See if you can conjure up an argument based on this and present it to him. Then tell him that how you talk is who you are. Love me, love my speech.

10:06 AM

Blogger Jake said...

To the comment about putting african-americans down. I think it's a good idea to make english the only official language to speak in america. I deliver pizza and nine out of ten times, I can't even get past the language barrier to tell them that I'm there waiting at the door over the phone. (When they don't answer to knocks) They even find it hard to understand me when I tell them in their language that I'm there. Maybe it's due to my english-midwestern-american accent?

7:09 AM

Blogger wwn said...

Question... Can I write ' I believed I was an architect bound' instead of 'I believed I was bound to be an architect' ?

11:23 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Yes. The first is formal in style and suggests you believed you were embarked on being an architect. The other says you believed that your being an architect was inevitable.

1:12 PM

Blogger Redfox007 said...

What I have seen in these comments, such as the right to use double negatives, because they are known what to mean and such, is total illiteracy.

There is a "Proper English", which means to use it properly, or correct. There is a street language, which totally destroys proper English. I see no difference between Formal English, Standard English, nor Non-formal English.

What I do see is Proper English, which relates to American English, and pure old English, which relates to the EU.

For those who do not know American English, they do have classes for it, with Competent teachers.

3:08 PM


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