The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects 

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

"Every dialect has a grammar" does not mean "everything is relative, and let's throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please." What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar.

1. Appalachian a-prefixing

One of the most noticeable features of Appalachian English, which has been studied extensively by the linguists Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian, is the a- prefix that attaches to verbs. When people want to mock "hick" speech, they often scatter a-prefixed words around like "a-goin'" and "a-huntin'" and "a-fishin'," but if they don't actually speak the dialect, they usually make mistakes. That is because they don't know the rules of where a-prefixing can apply, and where it can't.

Rules? Yes, rules. To someone who speaks an a-prefixing dialect this sounds right: "He was a-huntin'."

But these sound wrong:

He likes a-huntin'.
Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me.
He makes money by a-buildin' houses.

It is not the case that a-prefixes can attach to any old word ending in -ing. They can attach to verbs, as in the first example. But not to gerunds (a verb serving as a noun for a general action), adjectives, or objects of prepositions, as in the other examples. The fact that those examples sound wrong to dialect speakers shows that there are conditions on where a-prefixes can go. The fact that those conditions can be described in terms of verbs, gerunds, adjectives, and prepositions show that the conditions have to do with the linguistic structure of sentences. A condition that depends on linguistic structure is a rule. A system of these rules is a grammar. This is what linguists mean when they talk about the grammar of a dialect.

People who speak this dialect don't learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can't describe them, the same way you know "I gave him a dollar" sounds good but "I donated him a dollar" sounds bad (even if you've never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn't follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

2. Southern American English "liketa"

Often features that are seen as sloppy pronunciations of Standard English show themselves on closer inspection to be used in a non-sloppy, highly consistent way—but according to a different set of rules. In the Alabama dialect studied by linguist Crawford Feagin, speakers say things like, "She liketa killed me!", meaning that she just about started to kill me, but didn't. This "liketa" is not just a shortening of "would have liked to"; it's also possible to say "I liketa had a heart attack."

"Liketa" is close to being a substitute for "almost," but it doesn't behave exactly like that word either; you can ask "did you almost die?" but not "did you liketa died?"

"Liketa" is not just a lazy version of Standard English. You can describe the conditions for its use—the rules of "liketa." As Feagin says, it "occurs in both positive and negative sentences, but not in questions and commands. It may co-occur with the intensifier 'just'; it always occurs in the past." Because rules govern "liketa," it is possible to break those rules, and if you do you can be said to be using it ungrammatically.

3. African-American English stressed "BIN"

African-American English has a number of distinguishing features, one of them being the use of "stressed BIN," described by linguist John Rickford. It carries the main stress of the sentence and is distinct from unstressed "been." It occurs in sentences like "she BIN married," which does not mean "she has been married." It means "she is married, and has been for a long time."

Stressed BIN is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for. It can also be used in places where Standard "been" would not occur, such as "I BIN ate it" (I ate it a long time ago).

There are structural conditions on where stressed BIN can and cannot occur. Its use is governed by rules. As linguist Lisa Green points out, it can't be moved to the front of the sentence for questions (BIN John and Lisa dating?) or used in a tagged question at the end (She BIN married, binn't she?), and it can't be used with phrases indicating a specific time (I BIN asked him bout that three weeks ago). Because there are grammatical conditions for the use of stressed BIN, it is possible to use it the wrong way, as nearly everyone who tries to mock it does.

More explanations of these phenomena and others can be found at the Yale Grammatical Diversity project, the mission of which is to serve as "a crucial source of data for the development of theories of human linguistic knowledge." However you feel about dialects and whether they are worthy of respect, the fact that human ways of speaking always settle into rule-governed systems, all describable in terms of the same set of basic linguistic concepts—that, at the very least, is pretty darn interesting. And frankly, the more you pursue what's interesting about it, the less emotional your judgments about dialects become.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers on National Punctuation Day

Uncommon Goods
Uncommon Goods

Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Does your significant other get a thrill from showing you how to really use a semicolon? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

1. The Elements of Style Illustrated; $15

Elements of Style Illustrated Book.
Penguin Random House

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. Pencils; $9

Best Grammar Gifts
Fresh Prints of CT

Mixing up their and they're is a simple mistake that we're all guilty of, but these pencils will remind you to take an extra moment while writing to make sure you're getting the basics right.

Find It: Amazon

3. Punctuation Bookends; $25


JHP

These punctuation-themed bookends are ideal for keeping your reading material in order; they’re heavy enough to do the job but not big enough to overshadow your collection. Or you can just use them as paperweights or simple home decorations.

Find It: Amazon

4. Cheese & Crackers Serving Board; $48

Uncommon Goods Ampersand Cheese Board
Uncommon Goods

Bring your love of punctuation to your next wine and cheese party with this maple wood serving board that arranges your finger food in the shape of an ampersand.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

5. Punctuation Poster; $36

Punctuation and Grammar Gifts.
FolioCreations

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster from FolioCreations, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. Shady Characters; $14

Shady Characters Book
W. W. Norton & Company

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. Ampersand Marquee; $16

Grammar Gifts
Darice/Amazon

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. Pop Culture Parts of Speech; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. Owl Shirt; $15

Best Grammar Gifts
Bookworm Basics

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

It’s Official: Merriam-Webster Has Added They to Its Online Dictionary as a Nonbinary Pronoun

psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images
psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images

Two and a half years after the Associated Press announced it would recognize they as a singular pronoun, America’s oldest dictionary is following suit. The Guardian reports that Merriam-Webster has officially added they into its online dictionary as a grammatically correct nonbinary pronoun.

Merriam-Webster notes in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, and quoted an 1881 letter in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown gender with the pronouns they, theirs, and even themself. The post also mentions that using you as a singular pronoun wasn’t always considered grammatically correct, either: it was born out of necessity, gained popularity in casual conversation, and eventually became formally accepted as a singular pronoun.

Merriam-Webster does acknowledge that this new application of they differs from how the general public has most commonly used it in previous centuries. In the past, the singular they has referred to “a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.” For example, you would probably say “Tell each person that they are responsible for cleaning up their own trash,” rather than “Tell each person that he or she is responsible for cleaning up his or her own trash.” Now, however, we use they to describe a person who simply doesn't identify as either male or female.

It’s a much more direct use of the pronoun, and it’s this definition that Merriam-Webster is adding to the existing dictionary entry for the word they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

And with that, “Don’t use they as a singular pronoun” has become nothing more than bad writing advice, much like “Don’t split infinitives” and these other grammar myths.

[h/t The Guardian]

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