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Let’s embrace Non-Standard English, y’all!

June 30, 2014

Let me be clear: I don’t like the term “Grammar Nazi.” Comparing any group to the Nazis is like comparing any flood to Hurricane Katrina: It will never be that bad.

Still, in its hyperbolic overkill (if there is such a thing as too much hyperbole), the term “Grammar Nazi” gets at the fervor with which some people attack the grammatical missteps of others. Certain people, probably live-and-let-live types in most situations, become aggressive, mean nit-pickers and mistake-pointer-outers as soon as they see the chance. Like dogs waiting to be unleashed for the hunt, they lunge for the slightest mistakes in public or private writing.


Now, I like grammar. I know a lot about grammar. I know when to use who and when to use whom. I know what a comma splice is. I like pondering irregular past participles and considering how to make a plural possessive form of “attorney general.” I know my common Latin abbreviations (e.g., i.e., ibid., etc.) and I can use per se appropriately.

With that knowledge, with my sense of “correct” versus “incorrect,” I have certainly critiqued/laughed at a good number of the errors of others. But I have been trying to stop.

I have been trying to stop because grammar doesn’t tell me that much about a person. It is just another inaccurate, imprecise, prejudiced tool that we use to draw conclusions about others. Conclusions that are, a good deal of the time, wrong.

Grammatical errors do not matter if the message still gets through. If I can understand what a person is saying or writing, if their ideas are effectively communicated to me through their use of language, I couldn’t care less that they use the passive voice instead of the active or that they use the wrong its/it’s form.

Linguistic and educational researchers, namely Lisa Delpit and Victoria Purcell-Gates, have come to a few alarming conclusions about how the use of a “Non-Standard English” (NSE) dialect can lead to discrimination at school.

Among those conclusions:

  • Students who speak such dialects, which include Appalachian English and African American Vernacular English (also known as “Ebonics” or “Black English”), are perceived by their teachers to be less intelligent than their Standard English (SE) speaking peers.
  • There is a correlation between the use of an NSE dialect and low socio-economic status.
  • Parents who speak NSE are prone to be disregarded by school faculty and administration, making them less effective advocates for their children.
  • After experiencing constant correction of their use of language, students who speak NSE are less engaged in the classroom.

The solutions to counter-act the effects of these conclusions center around embracing students’ use of NSE and using the dialect as a point of departure for studying Standard English.

When both forms of expression are viewed as legitimate, grammar instruction turns from focusing on what is “right” and instead looks critically at how language is used. And then students can truly begin to consider how to most effectively choose and use their language.

For younger students, potential classroom activities might include comparisons of different dialects in their neighborhood and popular culture: The students might be asked to express the differences in speech among TV characters from different social and cultural groups. They might do the same while interviewing parents, grandparents, and people from their community.  They might ask each person to describe a particular object or concept (e.g. a strawberry or how to tell time) and observe how different people explain the same thing using different language.

For older students, there are activities that engage students more directly with their language.  For instance, students might draw comparisons of cultural grammar structures through the creation of a grammar book for their dialect.  The students might create a dictionary with slang or language from their dialect (or their generation) and translate it into SE.  Older students might also memorize parts from drama productions and watch themselves on video after, listening for their Standard English.  One college professor interviewed by Delpit, upon playing her class some recordings of their comments (with a stated focus on content, not speech), noticed students self-critiquing their use of NSE, realizing on their own that, in academic discourse, Standard English seemed more persuasive.

Role-playing has been used effectively with younger students too, in puppet shows with super-heroes (who often use hypercorrect language), or in producing news shows imitating newscasters.  Thus, when their language is being discussed, the question is phrased as an issue of “what is the right way to say this in the context?” rather than “what is the right way to say this?”; an important distinction that leads students to the conclusion that different ways of speaking are appropriate in different contexts.

And when we, as teachers and as individuals, draw that conclusion, maybe we’ll stop being such fervent grammar purists (or Nazis) and begin to appreciate how we all can use all types of language, formal and informal, more effectively.