But first, we’re going to talk about something that has been bothering me, something that goes all the way back to the beginning of the English language, past even when people said “thou” and “yonder.”
That thing is grammar snobbiness.
Those of you who either know me well or have stalked me in depth on the Internets might ask, “But aren’t you an editor, a person who fixes bad grammar for a living?”
Yes, that is correct. I must regularly make sure that articles about Brother Ali or Iron Man follow the laws of the associated press, AKA AP style. But that is for the sake of consistency of mass media communication, intended to give off a sheen of professionalism. It’s not inherently necessary for communication.
I’m not saying “to hell with grammar!” Grammar has important semantic functions - letting us know when a sentence is over, denoting possessives, etc. - but people forget how subjective it is.
For example, look at its task of “letting us know when a sentence is over.” What is a sentence? Basically, an independent clause that contains both a subject (person who performs the verb) and a verb.
Bobby bought lotion.
(Sometimes people mistake a noun phrase for a verb phrase because it contains a verb, for example:
The Bobby who bought lotion. “Bought” is a verb, but here it’s just modifying the noun.)
Anyhoo, we all know that you’re not supposed to join two independent clauses with a comma, like this:
My mom took a pill, she said my aura was red.
But even if you happen to make this rookie mistake, people will still know what you mean, because we implicitly understand that a sentence is something that contains a subject and a verb, not just that it’s something with a period at the end.
In Chinese, you can join two independent clauses with commas all you want, because grammar is subjective.
It’s ok to practice standard English grammar. It will get you far. But just make sure you are not grumbling about bad grammar without understanding that there are countless variations of English on this planet. Not only on the planet, but even in America. There is African American English (or as some people call it, “Ebonics,” although I do not believe this is politically correct anymore) which is influenced by West African trade languages, Spanglish, and even what I will sloppily label “teenspeak.” In a way, everyone speaks their own personal language, marked by their habits, imagery, grammatical anomalies, or even a million asterisks and hearts on their MySpace profile. Using non-standard English denotes who you are in relation to other people, what age you are and what group you belong to.
Thus, the difference between descriptive linguistics and prescriptive linguistics:
Prescriptive linguistics is the bad kind. It says, “The only correct way is this way, and I’m going to think people are dumb when they don’t do it this way.” It is a school of thought usually held by teachers and other enemies of society (just kidding!). Prescriptive linguistics fails to realize that language is always in flux. Language is like a big dorky quilt being worked on by a million needles, where one end looks smooth and the other is an abstract hodgepodge, depending on where you sit.
Descriptive linguistics instead aims to research what people are actually saying and how they transcribe it, and why they do things the way they do. No one speaks in nonsense, except maybe people with brain damage to the Wernicke or Broca areas in their brains, if I remember my high school psych class right. There is no motivation to speak in nonsense, so every variation from standard English has its own semantic rules.
Look at the habitual “be.”
My mom be giving herself her diabetes shot.
It seems incorrect, but instead it denotes that it is not happening at this moment, but is instead a habitual act. She always gives herself the shot, as opposed to someone else.
So, let’s look at the word “like.”
I can’t wait till people start getting off kids’ cases about saying “like.”
That word has several functions:
-To denote approximation (She had like fourteen different shades of red nail polish.)
-To introduce an example, or a list (I brought lots of food to the slumber party, like Cheetos and Pop Tarts)
-To compare two things or introduce a simile (It was just like her ADD had up and disappeared!) (Teachers would probably tell you to say “as if” instead)
-A hedge (a hedge is something like “um,” or “well,” something people use when they feel intimidated in a conversation) (I was just like, what are you, like doing? Like she’s such a like hoe.) (Admittedly, this function gives all the other ones a bad name, because it brings up associations of the cast of “The Hills”)
In about 30 years, it’s not going to seem unsophisticated to say “like” in these instances (except maybe the fourth), because with time it will become semantically cemented and lose its stigma of suntanned, birdbrained California youth.
Did you read for this long? No. Oh that’s depressing. I understand though. I like get distracted too. But if you are still reading, have some sensitivity when people don’t write in Standard English. Its OK 2 b non-standard, mayB its even kewl.