Dialect Privilege: grammar correction as a microagression

I’ve been wanting to write this post since last may when I completed ENG 311: Grammar and the Politics of English. Before I took this class I never thought of grammar correction as anything more than being an annoying stickler. Now that I realize the implications grammar “correction” carries, I see it everywhere and cringe every time.

A page I used to “like” on facebook, Grammarly, shames grammatical errors.
People on the internet will use someone’s grammatical errors/typos to discredit what they’re saying.
And on a much larger and disturbing scale, school and society will teach you that certain dialects and slang words are “improper” and denote a lack of intelligence/refinement.

“I been here.”
There are textbooks that would label the above sentence as “grammatically incorrect” but every dialect has its own set of grammar rules. This sentence actually IS grammatically correct in the dialect of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Thus, labeling a sentence like this as “incorrect” or “improper” is a akin to labeling anyone who speaks AAVE as improper. Language is a huge component of identity so you’re rejecting more than what they’re saying; you’re rejecting who they are.

“Standard” English
I know some of you are thinking “okay, well you still need to learn standard English because that’s what we use in school & the professional world” and in some ways you’re right. There is a dialect of power in this country but it is unethical to ignore the validity of other dialects and acknowledge the reasons why certain dialects are privileged. But this idea of “standard English” is highly flawed. “Standard English” is nothing but a social construct rooted in classism and racism; it’s a label we need to move away from.

There is no “Standard English”; it simply does not exist. English is a bastard language and its origins are far too muddied to discern. There are many articles on the history of English that acknowledge that the dialects spoken by the lower class were viewed as lesser. Think about it. What makes one dialect more “sophisticated” than another if both have complex sets of grammar rules? Nothing. It’s all rooted in not wanting to be aligned with the lower class because the lower class was seen as “bad” because we’ve been attaching stigma to the poor for centuries.

We can’t accept this at face value; we have to think critically about these issues.

Additionally, the English in Canada and Britain is different than the English we use in America. We don’t label any of those as “wrong” but in our own country we make faces at accents, judge dialects, label other region’s terminology (slang) as hogwash if its “not what we call it.” So what do we really mean when we say “standard English”? We mean the syntax and formal elements we’d hear from a news reporter or see in an academic paper. Thus, a more accurate term would be Edited American English (EAE).

It is the dialect/language of power that we show off in job interviews and in final drafts of essays but NO ONE actually speaks like that all the time. And if you think you do I invite you to participate in the challenge my professor suggested: record yourself for an entire day; see how many times you slip out of EAE (i.e gonna, the phrase: I was like, etc).

And there’s nothing wrong with that! If you spoke using “perfect” EAE grammar all the time you would sound like a robot and people would ask, “What are you talking like that?”

AAVE is its own dialect but we’ve been taught to look at it as “bad English” because are testing it against the wrong set of grammar rules (those of Edited American English (EAE))–this is nonsensical. By this logic Spanish is really bad English. And of course it’s not; it’s a different language.

I’m not suggesting people who use AAVE shouldn’t learn to develop a command over EAE anymore than I’d suggest a spanish speaking student doesn’t have to learn English. The bottom line, even if its ugly, is you need a command of Edited American English to have the best shot at succeeding in academia and the professional world. The best way to make that happen is not by condemning students’s home dialect, but by acknowledging its legitimacy and using that knowledge base to acquire EAE.

This video demonstrates the way AAVE can be utilized in the classroom and shows some of its grammatical rules.

“Ain’t” is not a word
What a ludicrous statement. It’s a word because people use it. How can you deny its existence when so many people have spoken it. Our entire language is an ever changing invention so to label words like “ain’t” as not real/valid purely comes from linguistic prejudice that we are taught growing up. While ain’t is a highly fluid word one use is “ain’t I” which is the shortened form of “am I not?”, this is viewed as unacceptable. Yet, “aren’t I?” which is the shortened form of “are not I?” is acceptable. Once again, this is a class/race issue. So many people overhear the colloquial language of the black/brown community and roll their eyes at how “uneducated” they sound, do you really believe black/brown people can’t speak properly? Or do you think society heard how they spoke and labeled it “improper”?

Slang Sidebar
Words such as “gonna” and “hot” (as in attractive) can be used in casual conversation without passing judgement but we look down on “ain’t” and “shawty bad” (as in attractive). Why? Because whether we want to admit it or not we have normalized the dialectical colloquialisms of”White america” and condemn anything that deviates from this “norm.” It’s everyday classism/racism. It’s history repeating itself.

In closing, there is no such thing as proper speech. “There are no right language or wrong language anymore than there are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention, and circumstance are all” (stephen fry).

Until we accept this truth we will keep disparaging students, keep shaming our peers, and keep reinforcing the classist, Eurocentric, and problematic values our nation–unfortunately–holds so dear.

If you’re still not convinced, or even if you are, check out this short video exploring code-switching and dialectal validity that makes me wonder why I even bothered to write this post:

2 thoughts on “Dialect Privilege: grammar correction as a microagression

  1. Pingback: “My word” (for those surprised by my slang) | College In The Cornfield

  2. Pingback: Where I’ve been the last 2 months | College In The Cornfield

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