“Let me Axe You About Using ‘Axe'”

“I’m sorry.  Did you mean to say you ‘asked‘ me a question?  Because ‘axe‘ is something you chop wood with.”

Ever hear that one?  There is a reason I ‘axe‘ this question of you.

We commonly hear that saying “axe” when you mean “ask” is bad grammar, is a sign of ignorance.  Is this true?  And what does the use of “axe” say about a person?

Continue reading

Why It Ain’t a Crime to Say “Ain’t”

” ‘Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary.”

Ever hear that one?  The colloquial phrase “ain’t” is typically a contracted variation of “am/is/are/was/were not”.

We commonly hear that “ain’t” is improper, is bad grammar, is a sign of ignorance.  Is this true?  And what does the use of “ain’t” say about us?

Conventionally, many people suppose that it is.  After all, in none of the preceding forms of “to be” that ends in the word combination “ain”.  Yet somehow we have ain’t.  This leaves us with the question, “how did this develop?”
Continue reading

Why There Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Double Negatives

“I didn’t do nothing,” is a double negative.  The words didn’t and nothing, both being negative, create a sentence in which there are two negatives, when it is otherwise assumed that the speaker meant to enforce a single negation: Nothing was done.

Is this an error?  Is this bad grammar?
Continue reading

Teach your child to speak right

The following is a clip from the documentary “American Tongues”

(beware of the use of a derogatory term, supported neither by myself nor, I imagine, the documentarians)

What’s your language prejudice?

When I was younger I had a lot.  A little bit against ebonics, but most against redneck talk.  I had friends who looked down on rurality and quaintness and so I did the same.

My dad swears up and down I used to correct his grammar a lot.  I don’t remember doing that.  What I did do was critique his pronunciation.  That’s phonetics, not grammar.  It did kill me when I was twelve and he would sit down at a Roanoke restaurant and say “weaww wa wah-er”.  The waitress would ask him to repeat, and he would switch to a slow, punctuated version of the same pronunciation: “We.  aww. wawn.  waher.”  At least, that’s how it sounded to me.

Now I’m much more tolerant of dialectical variation, thought I do recommend pronouncing your words according to your context, Dad.

But one thing I will teach my son is there is no “right English.”  The closest thing to a standard is only standardized because it is used by those in power.  It does not make you smarter.  And even the most notorious “errors”, such as “he be goin’ to the store,” operate based on certain rules.  Double negatives (“don’t have none”) were used by Chaucer, as were consonental metatheses (“Can I axe you a question”).  Is a person dumber or more likely to join a gang because they say “axe”, or are they actually intelligent enough to adapt to the practicality of our English-trained tongues placing the velar stop prior to the post-alveolar sibilant fricative?

So as a teacher I teach my students the same thing I’ll teach my son.  Learn to code switch.  Some people want you to wear a coat and a tie to certain functions.  Oblige them if you want to please them and get what you want from them.  If it insults your sense of self identity, don’t do it.  As a teacher I have to teach students how to writer “proper,” but it’s no more proper than their own tongue.

One of the miraculous gifts given to the apostles was the ability to speak in tongues.  They spoke and everyone understood.  They didn’t demand everyone learn Greek.  or Hebrew.  In fact, the language of the Bible is not the ritzy, “proper” Greek, but street Greek, barnyard Greek, the language of simple merchants and traders.  Then there’s the good book story of the “shibboleth”, where one Palestinian tribe slaughtered the other, using their inability to pronounce a syllable as an excuse.

How do you view people based on how they talk?  Do you judge them by their pronunciations, the grammatical rules to which they adhere, their colloquialisms?  Or do you consider instead the content of their words, whether they be hateful or considerate, wise or foolish, critically incisive or muddling?

What’s your language prejudice, and what does it say about you?  I submit that it tells me more about you than your own dialect does.  Ain’t no buts about it.