Speaking Standard English is not Elitist

Midwesterner Daniel Lawrence Whitney created Larry the Cable Guy for laughs.

Midwesterner Daniel Lawrence Whitney created "Larry the Cable Guy" for laughs.

In a society that provides free public education to every child of every social, ethnic, and economic background, there’s no justification for the attitude that the ability to speak a standard form of English is the marker and privilege of a particular race or social elite.

Yet millions of young people and immature adults assume the attitude that correct grammar, standard pronunciation, and a large vocabulary are to be avoided at all cost.

A tenth-grader corrected for pronoun use snaps back at the teacher, “I don’t talk that way!” A community college student objects to grammatical corrections on a paper by saying, “we don’t use that kind of language in my family.” Characters in popular television dramas ridicule other characters for using the word “whom,” or for referring to a classic from the English literary canon.

Ignorance is not cool. Equating nonstandard grammar with some sort of tribal pride is playing into the hands of manipulators who profit from class hostilities.

English is not one language. It’s a collection of dialects, some of which have wider uses than others. Some forms of English are considered “standard” and some are not. A standard form of English can be understood by a wider group of English speakers than less familiar dialects. The ability to speak a standard dialect in addition to one’s home dialect is one of the fruits of education.

An educated person learns to use language as a social and economic tool. Educated people have the power to choose the form of expression appropriate in a given set of circumstances. They are able to slip effortlessly from one form of English to another, without any sense of “betraying” their origins.

Speakers who reject standard English are throwing away the most valuable part of their education. They are limiting themselves socially and economically, out of a mistaken notion of what it means to be an individual.

It’s time that educated people started taking pride in being educated, instead of letting themselves be intimidated by the pop culture attitude that people who care about standard English are “grammar Nazis,” and that people who understand the uses of “whom” are “elitist snobs.”

Sloppy clothing and uneducated speech may be suitable accessories to a comedy act. Teachers, coaches, doctors, lawyers, journalists, publicists, television announcers, government officials, executives, and bank tellers can be expected to dress and speak appropriately.

3 comments to Speaking Standard English is not Elitist

  • LEMADU

    To Lawrence,
    BTW…The rest of the poem has been updated and is as follows…

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words could never hurt me.”
    And this I knew was surely true
    And truth could not desert me.

    But now I know it is not so.
    I’ve changed the latter part,
    For sticks and stones may break the bones
    But words can break the heart.

    Sticks and stones may break the bones
    But leave the spirit whole,
    But simple words can break the heart
    Or silence crush the soul.

  • Lawrence,
    It seems so obvious!

  • Maeve,

    You made a lot of excellent points in this article. Education, especially education that is well grounded in liberal arts, is a blessing to be forever thankful for.

    Only a fool could be cherish being seen as: uneducated, bad-mannered, barbaric, bearish, cantankerous, churlish, cloddish, clownish, clumsy, coarse, gross, gruff, ill-bred, ill-mannered, or impolite; and the list goes on, but it never gets better.

    The old platitude, “Sticks and stone may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may sound good but it suffers from a lack of complete truthfulness. Words can hurt and hurt very much, but perhaps not quite so much as lack of a livable income can and most probably will hurt.

    Given the choice, an intelligent, well-adjusted person will always choose a good education as the first step to living a blessed, pleasant life.

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