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Most people think of formal language as the ideal form, with less formal versions being a devolved, flawed, or generally worsened form of the formal language. It certainly sounds reasonable; formal language certainly feels harder to acquire and use consistently, for one. As a result, it’s a stance that many people (including me, prior to studying linguistics) take without even thinking about it: obviously, formal language is the language, and informal language is its cheap approximation.

In case I haven’t telegraphed it enough yet, I’d like to argue that this is incorrect. Informal language is not what you use when it isn’t worth the effort to use formal language, and informal language is not a strictly less governed system than formal language.

Since that might be butting up against ingrained opinion, let me start off with an analogy to levels of formality in another domain: fashion. Obviously, formal clothing like suits and ties and dresses can make people look really good for a gala event. But if you’re hoping to play a game of backyard football, they’re terrible, because they restrict your movement, and you’ll be unwilling to join into a dogpile because you’ll never get the blood and mud out. Similar problems arise if you’re working in a factory, doing dentistry, painting — the list goes on. Even just the fact that it’s summer now renders almost all of my formal clothing off-limits, lest I develop heatstroke.

[George Clooney all muddy in "Leatherheads"]

Case in point.

Returning to formal language, we see many of the same points. Formal language can sound nicer than informal in some settings — oratory springs to mind. In other cases, whether or not it sounds nicer, it’s more appropriate. One wouldn’t, for instance, write an academic paper in informal English and expect it to be accepted. (Much as one wouldn’t wear a well-worn T-shirt to a job interview.) And because it tends to be the intelligent or successful who are most often in these “formal language required” settings, it’s unsurprising that formal language is believed to be the better form.

But informal language has its advantages. I’m hesitant to use singular they in formal writing, which at times forces me to concoct suboptimal versions of a sentence and pick one that I don’t like, only because the one that would sound best and most natural doesn’t feel formal enough. This need for formality slows me down and prevents me from saying what I’d really like to. Informal English is more flexible, and allows me to say what I mean more directly. Informal English isn’t a devolution because it lets me express myself better.

Another example is with contractions — and this also shows that informal English has its own rules apart from formal English. In most people’s forms of formal English, contractions are a no-no. But informal English allows both contractions and their uncontracted counterparts, the latter usually being used for emphasis. Consider these song lyrics:

I didn’t see this coming,
no, I did not.”

I find the emphasis of the second line to be greatly reduced in the formal equivalent “I did not see this coming, no, I did not.” In fact, I occasionally find when I’m writing in formal English that the uncontracted version sounds too strident, but my hands are tied.

Stan Carey also talked about this earlier in the week, specifically in the context of song lyrics. Informal language of course thrives in song lyrics, of course, but that doesn’t stop people grousing about it. But wouldn’t it be far worse to be stuck with formal songwriters, who report that they “can not get any satisfaction” or that you “are nothing but a hound”?

Stan’s post links to a January discussion by Geoff Pullum of what he called “Normal and Formal” language, and how the competent writer is the one who switches between them readily and appropriately, not the one who unfailingly aims for Formal. His use of “Normal” in place of “informal” is important. Informal language is normal. It’s how virtually all of us talk to each other, even the most highly educated or successful.

That’s part of why formal language can feel more difficult than informal. We use informal language constantly, and as a result it comes naturally to us. Formal language is rarer, and like tying a tie, it’s hard when you’re not used to doing it. Not only that, but it can end up feeling pretty unnatural when adhered to too closely. Pullum gives the example of commenter who wanted him to write “whom are you supposed to trust” (instead of who), despite its stiltedness. He didn’t, and he was right.

Summary: Informal language is not a devolved version of formal language. It has rules that formal language doesn’t (e.g., choosing whether to use a contraction), and is in general more natural and readable than formal language. Informal language is, as Geoff Pullum puts it, normal language. This means that while formal language can be good and at times more appropriate than informal, it’s not always right, and it shouldn’t be treated as the ideal form of language.

The word that raises my hackles most when I’m reading a newspaper report is “expert”. It’s sometimes used appropriately by journalists to refer to someone who is a specialist in the relevant field (see ballistics experts, etc.). But just as often, it seems, it’s used to denote somebody who has an opinion but whom the writer can’t think of a better way to classify. Or worse, someone who has an opinion that wouldn’t be interesting unless they were an expert, but the story’s already written, so let’s just call them an expert.

There’s a saying in story-telling that if you have to tell your audience that something is interesting, it isn’t. That’s how I feel about experts as well. Experts should either already be well-known, or should have some sort of position or title that reflects their expertise. Academic expertise shines through in the form of prestigious positions at good universities, political expertise in important roles in major campaigns or offices, business expertise in valuable roles in good companies. In cases where the expertise isn’t reflected in one’s position, the expertise should be able to be explained with accomplishments, such as writing a dissertation on something or inventing something or founding a business. If all else fails (and even with those indications of expertise), the person’s insights ought to be able convince me that they are an expert. Otherwise, it’s an “Informed Ability”; a skill that I am told someone possesses but can find no evidence of.

There was an article in the Daily Mail recently (thanks to Stan Carey pointing it out) that basically amounted to a press release from the Plain English Campaign in preparation for their upcoming “Plain English Day”. And the author regurgitated, without anyone else’s participation, the thoughts of someone that the Daily Mail considered an expert.* Here’s how our “expert” is introduced:

Adults mimicking teen-speak are to blame for spreading sloppy English which is putting the future of the language at risk, an expert claimed yesterday. Western society’s obsession with youth has led to older people trying to talk like teenagers, warned Marie Clair, of the Plain English Campaign. As a result, it may be too late to ‘turn the tide on our declining English’, said Mrs Clair.

They don’t even give Clair’s role within the Plain English Campaign organization, asking us to trust that the appellation “expert” is accurate and sufficient. Do you want to take a guess at what her position is? Remember, before you guess, that she is an expert, presumably in the decline of the English language.

According to her LinkedIn profile, she is the “PR and Press Officer at Plain English Campaign”, a spokesperson. If she’s an expert on language, then I guess BP spokespeople are experts on oil drilling.

Former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf

"And I am an expert in military tactics!"

But, for the sake of further discussion, let’s pretend that Clair is an expert. I don’t expect experts to justify every last thing they say (especially in news articles), but they should be able to offer at least a piece or two of evidence for their views. Being able to justify and explain one’s opinion is necessary for an expert to be useful. Clair does this by offering two crummy examples of adults using teenspeak and deteriorating the language: that David Cameron used the word twat on the radio and that Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall used wicked to describe the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Let’s start with the Camilla thing. Here’s the complete 15-second interview where she used wicked when an interviewer popped up to ask her about the engagement. The interview, such as it was, came as she exited a theatre and got into a car. What was she doing at the theatre? Watching the musical Wicked. C’mon, she even smiles after saying wicked! She’s making a pun!

And as for the Cameron thing, he too was making a joke with his usage. Here’s the clip of him on the radio show, discussing his concerns about the instantaneous and brief nature of Twitter messages. He says to the interviewer: “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.” And then they both laugh heartily, because he’s made a clever, if somewhat obscene, turn of phrase.**

So Clair’s evidence for the decline of English by means of new slang consists of two examples where adults use slang to complete a linguistic quip. No. These examples show, to the contrary, that they are sufficiently adept at the English language to make witticisms. These examples show, if anything, that Camilla and Cameron respect the language!

Well, unless you’re Marie Clair, in which case they show that “their language is deteriorating. They are lowering the bar. Our language is flying off at all tangents, without the anchor of a solid foundation.”

Stop. Marie Clair is not an expert. Her argument is contradictory and unsupported. It flies off at tangents, at adults making slang puns, and it misses the solid foundation that slang doesn’t weaken language. Unless I’m wrong and English died in 1823 with the publication of Slang: a dictionary of the turf, the ring, the chase, the pit, or bon-ton, or in 1889 with A dictionary of slang, jargon & cant, or in …

*: If you haven’t seen it already, Martin Robbins has an appropriately alarmed response to this article’s bibble-babble.

**: It should be noted that Cameron actually failed to use teenspeak, saying “twits” when he ought to have said “tweets”. Furthermore, it bears mentioning that twat isn’t really teen-speak. It may have had a recent renaissance, but the word itself is attested all the way back to 1656 by the OED. The relevant meaning for Cameron’s comment, described in the OED as a “term of vulgar abuse”, is attested back to 1929. And, anecdotally, this was a common term of vulgar abuse amongst my Canadian friends at University back at the turn of the millennium, suggesting that now it wouldn’t be teen-speak but rather twenty-something-speak. But these are all the sort of details that we can safely assume are irrelevant because Marie Clair is an expert and she’s overlooking them.

I saw this interesting headline on Google News recently: “DEA seeks Ebonics experts to help with cases“. And since an old friend and recent commenter had put African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics (I’ll just call it AAVE) in my mind, the story came at just the right time to convince me to click on it. (I was also motivated by that slight twinge of a fleeting thought that perhaps I could pass as an expert, since I am familiar with variation in American English, before I remembered that I don’t know anything about AAVE.)

The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:

“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”‘”*

More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:

(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.

The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.

But I’m not pointing this story out solely because it’s interesting or because I think the tense system of AAVE is kind of beautiful. I’m pointing it out because there is idiocy afoot, as always seems to happen when AAVE is discussed.

Back in 1996, the Oakland (Calif.) school board passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics/AAVE as a language. It was to be treated similarly to other non-English languages for the purposes of instruction — i.e., students raised speaking AAVE instead of SAE could receive some of the same programs that other English as a Second Language students. Speaking as a linguist, this is a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, ignorance of the specifics, and imprecise wording on the resolution, the pretty good idea seemed like a horrible one to most people. Many people thought that children were going to be taught AAVE in place of SAE, which would have been a bad idea. Some thought the resolution stated that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to use AAVE over SAE.** And a lot were just appalled that AAVE could possibly be thought of something with any distinctive structure, since everyone knew it’s just defective English.*** But the key lesson here is that a good idea lost out because of widespread misinterpretation and a misguided protectionism for Standard English.

Returning to the DEA-looking-for-translators story, we see history repeating itself thanks to the lobbying group English First:

“Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.

‘Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,’ said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.

‘I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,’ he said. ‘I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.'”

None of what Hogan says here makes any sense if you actually are familiar with the DEA’s goals. His quotes are talking about something else entirely. How is it going in the wrong direction to find someone who can convert essentially coded communication into a form that can be entered as evidence? Does English First support drug dealers? Judging from Hogan’s response, yes. He wants drug dealers pursued if they’re using code words, but apparently not if they’re speaking another language or dialect. Excuse me for shouting, but as a lobbyist, THIS GUY GETS TO TALK TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES MORE EASILY THAN YOU DO.

I don’t know what sort of fantasy world Hogan lives in (probably one where he and not Hulk is the most famous Hogan in the world), but saying that a language is of questionable merit doesn’t make it go away. If it did, the USSR would have eliminated a lot of Central Asian languages as less important than Russian. Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it. Hogan’s pigheadedness would only hamstring the DEA. I don’t see how he doesn’t see that.

*: Yes, that’s six apostrophes there. The quote was four-levels nested, sot here are two single quotes and two double quotes. I do believe this is the most apostrophes I have ever used at once and I am kind of excited.

**: The culprit there was the phrase “genetically based”, which was interpreted as referring to people’s knowledge of a language when really it was referring to the relationship between languages.

***: I am embarrassed to say I fell into this camp, although that was because I had had no linguistic training yet and also was 13 and thus an idiot.

With the passion of a thousand suns do grammarians hate irregardless. Grammar forums are rife with rage at its continued existence. It’s called an “evil word“, “a corruption, an abomination“. Richard Lederer wrote, “Of all the misuses that slither through the English language, irregardless will get you into the hottest of water.” You can even buy a T-shirt advertising your low opinion of irregardless.

The question isn’t whether or not irregardless is a word, because that’s such an ill-defined question. Of course it’s a word, as it’s a string of letters with a fairly well-agreed-upon intended meaning, a string that is standardly separated from other words in a sentence by spaces. But asking if it’s a word isn’t the question anyone’s interested in; when people ask if irregardless is a word, they really mean to ask if irregardless is a valid and well-accepted component of Standard English. And on that front, as with many words that I use, such as jaggerbush or slippy, the answer is no, it’s definitely non-standard. The reason why is obvious; it’s got a morphological double negative, with the negative prefix ir- and the negative suffix -less. As a result, it doesn’t fit the (singularly negative) meaning it’s intended to convey.

Irregardless appears to have arisen as a blend of the two standard words irrespective and regardless, and it’s not new. The American Dialect Dictionary antedates it to 1912. Thanks to Google Books, I can even offer a few unconfirmed earlier occurrences for irregardless:

(1) “[…] B. Gosse Esq., of London, who gave indiscriminately to every object irregardless of worthiness, and disliked to destroy anything.”
[Nature’s Revelations of Character, by Joseph Simms, MD, 1873]

(2) “Individually, at least, I am in favor of the education of whole country, irregardless of race, color, or previous condition.”
[Transcript of the Congressional Testimony of William H. Hill, December 28, 1876]

(3) “[…] an agreement amongst everybody who handles coal in the New England cities to protect themselves irregardless of the situation and irregardless of the demands of the people […]”
[Court Proceedings from 1906]

Honestly, these early attestations surprised me. I’d figured, as I assume most people do, that irregardless was a fairly new phenomenon. I was wrong; not only is irregardless over a century old, but it’s even appeared in older formal writing, such as the official text of the U.K. Contagious Disease Act (Horned Cattle) of 1880. As I found out while trawling the Oxford English Dictionary, I oughtn’t to have been so surprised by the long pedigree. In fact, irregardless would have fit in just fine in the 16th and 17th centuries:

[un-] is sometimes redundantly prefixed to adjectives ending in -less. […] The type, however, chiefly belongs to the later 16th and 17th centuries; among the instance from that period are unboundless, uncomfortless, undauntless […]”

Note that for these double negative words, like with irregardless, the intended meaning is negative. It might sound crazy that this could ever have been a common and productive pattern, but here’s an example from a 1570 poem:

Who seeking Christ to kill, the King of everlasting life,
Destroyed the infants young, a beast unmerciless,”

How about that? I suppose it’s not overly surprising that this is the case; the 16th and 17th centuries were a time when double negatives were still being used to indicate negation. Shakespeare, who wrote in this period, used them as negatives. And unmerciless and irregardless are just instances of double negatives within a word.

Even knowing all that, it’s still kind of surprising to me that irregardless is isn’t so much an ill-formed word as it is a latecomer who missed its chance by a few centuries. That doesn’t mean I’d advise using irregardless; far too much has changed in the language since 1570 for irregardless to be valid in Modern English. It’s just neat that something that’s now so anathema used to be acceptable.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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