Why Do Academics Continue to Insist on 'Proper' English?

By Dennis Baron

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 1992

Because I'm the only linguist in my English department and since I deliver regular pronouncements on the state of the English language for the local public-radio affiliate, I catch most of the questions and complaints about grammar called in to the English department by university employees, concerned citizens, and the occasional state legislative aide. Most of their queries have to do with placement of commas, capitalization, or the proper use of that and which. Those are not momentous issues, but they are important to the callers.

Recently I fielded a call from a senior editor at a university press who wanted to know why her secretaries couldn't or wouldn't use proper English when they spoke on the telephone. What especially irked her was their insistence on saying "they was." The editor was alarmed that they were not learning correct English in high school.

The editor's concern about her secretaries' use of language makes me wonder why diversity in English remains so unacceptable in this era of "political correctness" in academe. My caller's reaction to "they was" and other examples of what is generally diagnosed as non-standard English is not surprising, but it seems inconsistent with other liberal attitudes.

For example, the university press for which the editor works, like many other presses, publishes its share of books concerning politically correct and culturally diverse topics. But few of those works deal explicitly with linguistic variety and language change. Had the editor known anything about sociolinguistics, the study of the ways gender, class, and other social variables affect use of language and attitudes toward it, she might have understood her secretaries' reluctance or their inability to use standard English on the telephone.

I assume they come from a background where "they was" is normal, and any deviation from it is considered impersonal or rude. Furthermore, I'd guess they have little incentive to change their way of speech: Using "proper" English would not improve their job status or their pay, and they would probably feel uncomfortably pretentious. But my concern is not so much why the secretaries speak as they do or how to change their behavior, but rather why this kind of language use so annoys their boss.

Why is linguistic diversity not one of the diversities that academe has chosen to honor as it continues to broaden its curricula and perspectives? Educators (and editors) frequently categorize people who say "they was" or "she don't" as linguistically impoverished, socially deprived, educationally backward, and only marginally employable. But of course this isn't necessarily so. I know lots of people who use these stigmatized forms of English who make more money than most academics.

Even as we celebrate cultural difference in American history, society, and literature, we fear and reject diversity in the American language, where "correctness" and standardization remain the academic goals. It's fine to explode the canon and rewrite the syllabus in the name of cultural pluralism or to restructure the classroom to accommodate the different learning styles of students. It's even acceptable now in most disciplines to "rewrite" standard English to make it more fair in matters of race, gender, age, and ethnicity. But it still borders on the unethical to allow students to practice linguistic diversity unchecked. Let's face it: Most English instructors believe that failing to enforce language standards could cost them their jobs.

Not to worry, though: Despite their minimal training in grammar and the usage and history of language, most English teachers warm to the task of serving as language police. Even the most politically enlightened literature instructors join their more conservative counterparts in complaining about students' poor command of English.

By this they usually mean not an inability to reason cogently or marshal evidence in an argument, but poor spelling, apparently random punctuation, inappropriate diction and idiom, limited vocabulary, and inconsistent application of standard conventions for writing footnotes.

Although students have certain academic rights, language rights are not among them. And while instructors now think twice about denying the validity or value of the personal histories that students bring with them to class, deconstructionists -- who encourage a playfulness with language -- draw the line at solecism that is not self-reflexively ironic. Even radical Marxists and Freudians don't hesitate to invalidate the language that students use to express their highly personal and culturally diverse experiences.

Furthermore, many otherwise enlightened instructors still insist that three spelling errors or a slip in grammatical agreement means a failing paper. Red ink remains the rule, not the exception, the rationale most often being that non-standard language gets in the way of logic and argumentation. But that is true only if readers and listeners let it be true.

For example, in language as well as in mathematics, double negatives form positives only in certain limited instances. A "not unkind remark" is almost -- but often not quite -- a kind one. It is true that multiplying two negative numbers results in a positive one. However, when you add two negative numbers the result is an even greater negative. Similarly, in most cases multiple negation serves as an intensifier. "They don't like no grammarians," while non-standard, cannot normally be interpreted as a positive. Also, its meaning is not unclear.

Putting it bluntly, upon close examination standard English is a myth or, at best, an imperfect and vague set of rules of etiquette that many of us try to follow in our own haphazard way. The truth is that language varies, whether we like it or not. Not only does English usage vary at the offices of a Midwestern university press, but it also varies in the United States, in other English-speaking countries, and in the rest of the world where English serves as a lingua franca. Recognizing this diversity, many language experts have begun to speak not of World English but of World Englishes. That is all the more reason to respect linguistic diversity; to treat it as the expected, not the exception.

The use of non-standard English is often incorrectly linked to a decline in intellectual standards. Unbending supporters of standard English insist that without enforced measures of correctness, language will decay, communication will break down, and civilization as we know it will disappear. Literacy, already imperiled, will deteriorate even further. And scores on standardized tests will plummet.

But, although warnings that linguistic diversity will produce cultural decay have been bandied about for centuries now, variety in language is a sign of health rather than disease. Language dies not when it is misused, but when it is silenced. It is more likely that English will meet its end through the inappropriate splitting of atoms, not infinitives; through international discord, not subject-verb disagreements.

Nonetheless, "they was," "ain't," double negatives, and similarly stigmatized constructions continue to evoke negative responses and cause concern. And just as predictably, people continue their nonstandard usage; language doesn't readily change in response to top-down strictures. If it did, teachers and editors wouldn't have to keep repeating themselves.

When I recall the linguist James Sledd's assertion some years ago that not everyone might find standard English as attractive as academics seem to, I wonder whether education ought to involve enforcement of language standards at all. Not because I have anything against standard English: The existence of standards and the debate that surrounds them are as natural as the existence of linguistic diversity. My point is that standards and diversity are essential and both need the attention of the academy.

Ironically, the enforcement of language standards frequently tends to backfire, producing diversity where uniformity was intended. Students, convinced that the words that they normally want to use are probably wrong, make new mistakes as they try to avoid their instructors' censure. This in turn increases the case load of the language police.

Even so, I doubt that language diversity will become politically correct in academe in the near future. English teachers cling tenaciously to the gatekeeping function served by the proper use of language. Further, when queried, most parents, whatever variety of language they use, want their children to learn "good" English (or French or Spanish or Japanese) in school. And people still carry with them the notion that in matters of language, there is just one right way of speaking and writing. So strong is linguistic insecurity that when I ask my students -- who have been practicing their language skills for 18 to 30 or more years -- whether they feel they use language well, most say no, they could do better.

So, what advice did I give my caller, who wanted her employees to use standard language? Although I'm not sure that a behavioral approach to language change would help, my advice to the editor was to call her secretaries assistant editors.

Since language generally conforms itself to situation and because "editor" carries more formality and prestige than "secretary," perhaps a title change would elicit the desired linguistic response. That would probably work, though, only if the renamed editors also took on editorial responsibilities. What I am sure of is that as difficult as it is to turn "they was" into "they were," it is just as difficult to convince teachers and editors that subject-verb discord is not pathological.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.