If No Towel Turn Knob:
The Monument of Proper English


“Language is in decline… we would be better off if we spoke and wrote with exactness and grace, and if we preserved, rather than destroyed, the value of our language.”

                    Edwin Newman[1]

Common views of the English language tend to deny that there are varieties (or dialects) of English, believing instead that one correct form exists, and that there are any number of possible ways to violate it. For example, a speaker or writer might begin a sentence with hopefully, or use less when they mean fewer (one might even use they as a singular pronoun, avoiding the awkward he or she and the sexist he, but raising the suspicious brow of the collective English Teacher); another might use double negatives, or the word seen for saw, or them for those; of course, there is the infamous ain’t, which needs no introduction, and any number of other wordings that might propel the careful listener into fits.

However, from a linguistic point of view, only a couple of these examples are truly errors. The rest are samples from varieties/dialects of English that, from a scientific perspective, are not mistakes at all. Socially, these wordings are highly stigmatized, and they tend to be viewed as violations of real, proper English; but linguistically, functionally, there simply is no one real, proper English (worldwide, or even just in the U.S.). All languages come in dialects, but nearly everywhere, one of these dialects (the one spoken by the dominant class) is considered the standard, and the rest are viewed as deficient, or even non-existent. As applied linguist Jeff Siegel describes:

[S]tigmatized varieties include social dialects, such as working-class English; regional dialects, such as Appalachian in the United States; and ethnic or minority dialects such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Australian Aboriginal English. Pidgins and creoles, such as Melanesian Pidgin and Hawai'i Creole English, are also stigmatized, as they are often considered to be degenerate versions of the particular standards to which they are lexically related.

Siegel goes on to say:

Over the past 35 years, linguists have shown that these varieties are legitimate, rule-governed forms of language and in no way intrinsically inferior to the standard (e.g., Labov, 1969). But as Mackey (1978) has noted, “Only before God and linguists are all languages equal.[2]

The evidence upon which linguists (and, evidently, God) rest these conclusions comes from mounds of empirical research that has found various nonstandard varieties of English, previously considered to be filled with random error, to be rule-governed, stable, and predictable. In other words, rules govern statements such as I ain’t got no… just as they govern the statement, I don’t have any…; the rules are just different. 

What’s more, speakers from language communities that use constructions like I seen them kids or He don’t have nobody use these constructions just as regularly (i.e., stably) and predictably as do speakers from language communities that say, I saw those kids and He doesn’t have anybody  More importantly, neither of these phrases’ meaning is inherently more clear than any other. If he don’t have nobody were intrinsically less clear than he doesn’t have anybody, then people from communities whose dialects use such constructions would communicate less clearly with each other, never really knowing what their friends and family members were talking about.

So, from a linguistic point of view, all language dialects/varieties (designated so by their rule-governed-ness, stability, and predictability) are functionally equal, even while they are socially and politically hierarchical. This well established notion clearly goes against the common wisdom that Standard English (SE) has greater precision and clarity (Newman’s “exactness”) than do other varieties, a view that leads many to the conclusion that all English speakers should be speaking SE so that everyone can communicate more clearly and efficiently with one another. The linguistic principles outlined here serve to make us question why some people want everyone to speak the same variety of English (generally the one they were born into); while such a desire is often perceived to be a matter of communicative function, if nonstandard varieties of English are just as functional on this level, the real reason must have something to do with what SE represents. In these cases, SE is what I call a monument: a symbol rather than a tool.

In fact, we may want to question an even more widely held assumption: whether the role of communicating ideas is the major purpose of language at all.

The Purposes of Language: Communication or Commemoration?

Noted sociolinguist James Paul Gee writes:

[L]anguage serves a great many functions and giving and getting information, even in our new Information Age, is by no means the only one. If I had to single out a primary function of human language, it would be not one, but the following two closely related functions: to support the performance of social activities and social identities and to support human affiliation with cultures, social groups, and institutions[3]

We all know that language serves communicative purposes, but Gee here suggests that language serves more to signal social relationships and identities than as a neutral code for the exchanging of information. James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Tell Me What Is” adds to Gee’s point: “To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to ‘put your business in the street’: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your parents, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.”[4] In other words, we communicate many things when we speak or write; the information/message is but one of those things. When a person unironically uses ain’t or says that they don’t have no idea, the common view of language tries to sell us on the notion that they are speaking unclearly. However, Gee and Baldwin point out that the problem is not clarity; rather, the confusion often felt at hearing such utterances is not about the message communicated but about who this person has revealed themselves to be.

Communication takes place in all kinds of ways, linguistic and other. Research in the subfield of applied linguistics called English as a Lingua Franca[5] reveals that the packaging, the dialectal coding through which an idea is expressed, only impedes communication when the listener's/reader's notion of how things should be said impedes their willingness to receive the meaning. Juliane House found that nonnative English speakers, sharing no other common language and speaking English in a non-English setting (German, Korea, etc.) almost never failed to communicate because of their willingness to negotiate meaning together. Grammar errors didn't obstruct their communication because of both parties' interest in the content; communication failures only resulted when one interlocutor chose to end the negotiations—making one wonder where the clarity of communication takes place: in the language usage of the speaker/writer, or somewhere else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, communication tended to break down most quickly when one interlocutor was a native English speaker. Native speakers of English tended to be less willing to negotiate meaning with nonnative speakers' Englishes. But even with less than fluent English mastery—let alone the types of SE surface-level rules that stir up so many grammarian's pet peeves—nonnative English speakers seem to communicate just fine with one another.

Which leads me to the title of this article. Imagine the following scenario: You have an emergency restroom stop on your way to a job interview. The clock is ticking; you still need to find the office in a maze of a building. So big is your rush, you almost forget to wash your hands… Almost. Your hands are wet; your outfit is new and delicate; your interview is in 70 seconds; and the dispenser is out of paper towels. Panic ensues.
On the dispenser is the cryptic message: “IF NO TOWEL TURN KNOB.” An arrow points to the right.

There is no comma, there is no article, there is no—well, there’s literally no there there. Not understanding this jumbled, broken attempt at the English language, you walk into the interview room with hands soaking, refuse to shake hands with the interviewers, and come across as an un-hirable, socially awkward prospect. You never hear back about the job. Improper English has ruined your life.

Okay, maybe this one time, since the situation was so important, you decided that getting towel was more important than the damage your failure to uphold Proper English would do to your language. You turned knob, took towel, and maybe even got job.

This dispenser’s sign is not unique. Dropping articles is not just an error made by Koreans and Russians; SE speakers use these constructions all the time, and on purpose: a cookbook passage might read, “Place pot on stove; heat oven to 400 degrees”; the warning on a bottle of bleach may read, “Keep out of reach of children” or “call doctor immediately if swallowed,” and if such language impeded the reader’s understanding of this particular message, imagine the lawsuits that would follow. At these moments, moments when all we need is the information in the message, we tend to care little about the grammar rules upheld or violated, so long as the message is not obscured. Now, this last claim would be paradoxical if those very rules were precisely what kept communication clear. But they aren’t. As we see in these examples, communication remains intact, efficient, exact.

Language and Rules

Does this mean that language has no rules? That anything goes? To the contrary: a language is, to a very real extent, its rules. In fact, violations of deep grammatical rules will indeed blur communication; but the rules violated in this sign (article usage, linking verbs, missing subjects, etc.) must not be those deep rules. Thus, a vigilant guarding of these surface-level rules—such as the grammar pet peeves below—must not be truly motivated by concerns for efficiency or clarity (or “exactness”) of communication. It must be something else.  

When we see a sign that reads:

we have no real trouble receiving the messages. But imagine seeing these sentences in a student paper, or in a setting where you knew the writer was a nonnative English speaker. How often would we say that this person “can’t write,” or that we can’t understand what they mean? We might even believe that we don’t know what they mean. But we do. We know he or she means that [it is] illegal to place [an] object in [the] nozzle [in order to provide] for continuous flow [of gasoline].

But why don’t we consider this type of language to be erroneous when we see it on a sign, on a bottle, in a book? Perhaps it is because we need something from the text (a paper towel for our wet hands) more than we need to protect the SE monument at this moment. Perhaps it is because there is a certain authority, a certain power in place: I have no doubt that whoever wrote these signs is fully aware of what these SE rules are and has a conscious reason for violating them. I don’t imagine they go home and speak caveman English with their families: “If no homework go play,” for example. So perhaps the fact that I feel confident that these rules are violated intentionally makes me less concerned that the authors need to get some basic English skills down. But, if I see the same construction in a student paper, perhaps I worry that she doesn’t know the rules, and so this type of writing, if not stopped, will cause the crumbling of the SE monument?

Error may seem as if it resides in the wording, the linguistic construction, but this perception may also be clouded. Perhaps the speaker/writer, and the authorial power they have (or lack), say more about the correctness of the construction than the linguistic rules violated. Perhaps language error itself is a much more complicated matter than is commonly presumed.

Surface-Level versus Deep Errors and Correctness in Standard English

In “The Phenomenology of Error,” written in 1981, Joseph Williams complicates the notion of error in SE. In part, he argues that error is seen (and not seen) based more on who the writer and reader are, and the intention with which the reader reads, than on the actual linguistic constructions. More specifically, he argues that people tend to read either with the intention of spotting errors or with the intention of understanding content—and that each intention makes the other impossible.[6] Williams argues that when a teacher’s concern in reading a paper is the correctness of the student’s language, he or she will indeed find errors, but will not be able to attend to the ideas; similarly, when one reads a paper for the ideas—such as “The Phenomenology of Error” itself—one will read through most errors, either not seeing them at all, or semi-consciously forgiving them.
Williams’ point is that error itself, therefore, is not on the page; it lies somewhere between the author, the page, the reader, and the style manuals that codify what should and shouldn’t be said. His point can be supported by considering the sheer vastness of rules that hold a language together.

Why is it that we understand If no towel turn knob even though it clearly violates several SE principles? The answer is because of the amount of rules that it does adhere to (added to the fact that the sentence takes place within a very specific context, another key point about language and communication). In order to demonstrate the complex matter of grammaticality, consider Chomsky’s famous example, where he presents the following two sentences, neither of which makes any sense, but only one of which is ungrammatical:

1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Chomsky suggests that any English speaker would recognize the difference in grammaticality between the two sentences, i.e., that only sentence 1 is grammatical. In terms of function, we see that the series in sentence 1 (Adverb, adjective, noun, verb, adverb) works grammatically, while the series in sentence 2 (Adverb, verb, noun, adjective, adverb) doesn’t, even if this is not a rule taught in school or even one consciously known by most speakers.

Similarly, in 1985, Patrick Hartwell presented the following example:

I have asked members of a number of different groups—from sixth graders to college freshmen to high-school teachers—to give me the rule for ordering adjectives of nationality, age, and number in English. The response is always the same: “We don't know the rule.” Yet when I ask these groups to perform an active language task, they show productive control over the rule they have denied knowing. I ask them to arrange the following words in a natural order:

French             the       young             girls     four

I have never seen a native speaker of English who did not immediately produce the natural order, “the four young French girls.[7]

Incidentally, Hartwell explains, “The rule is that in English the order of adjectives is first, number, second, age, and third, nationality.” The rules one adheres to in order to make the simplest sentence are truly vast, and most of them are unconscious to the user. No one has set out to memorize them all, nor have linguists even charted them all, and yet a person speaking even the most simple utterance is employing them effortlessly. As William Murdick writes:

When a girl says, “I let Mary keep it,” she has demonstrated an ability to distinguish appropriately among nouns, pronouns, and verbs. If we follow a traditional grammar analysis of the sentence, we can say that she also knows what an indirect object is and what a direct object is, and which comes first; in fact, she knows that an infinitive can be reduced (the to dropped) and used as a nominal in object function: “(to) keep.” She knows that infinitive nominals can be transitive (taking the object it). And she knows the proper case for pronouns that function in the subject role (I instead of me).

She also knows the classic SVO word order of English sentences. She knows that among the grammatical features of her verb let is the fact that it takes a reduced infinitive for a verbal direct object, not a fully ex-pressed infinitive or a gerund. And she knows that the “argument structure” of let will establish her intended semantic relations, so that Mary is the agent of keep (compare with “I promised Mary to keep it” in which I is the agent of keep).[8]

If quizzed, I imagine that most readers (myself included) would fail to identify and explain what most of these rules mean and how they function. Yet, no one would fail to understand the phrase, “I let Mary keep it.” So, clearly, the relationship between conscious knowledge of deep grammatical rules and the ability to produce and understand sentences is not a strong one.

In 1982, noted linguist Steven Krashen used the following diagrams[9] to express a similar idea:

Many believe that the rules of English (or any language) are those described in grammar books and style manuals, but Krashen helps show that what gets presented in these publications is only a sliver of the web of rules that make up English (as a communicative tool). What’s more, the much larger portion of the language—the rules which these books, and even which the work of formal linguists, fail to cover—is already known unconsciously by the reader, by anyone able to make meaning of a style manual’s first sentence. 

In terms of functionality, then, in terms of communication, the rules of language are indeed what hold even the simplest utterances together; and yet a conscious knowledge of them, in terms of the abstract labels that linguists assign to various rules, has nothing to do with a person’s ability to use language as a tool. (Consider also that human language has likely been around for many more millennia than have linguists.) When people call subject-verb agreement a rule (violated by a phrase like they is or you is), when people say that a double negative breaks a grammar rule, they are using the term rule very loosely. To really break the rules of grammaticality would be to utter, “The girls French young four,” a statement that truly impedes communication.

Grammar Pet Peeves
Why, then, do we get so peeved when someone has violated one of these smaller, surface-level rules, one that does nothing to hinder communication—a missing article, or a double negative for example? Why is the Internet flooded with lists of grammar pet peeves? (And, on a less playful level, why are so many children from non-SE speaking homes and communities scoring lower on tests and getting lower grades based solely on these surface-level SE rule violations?)

Joseph Williams begins “The Phenomenology of Error” with the same question:

I am often puzzled by what we call errors of grammar and usage, errors such as different than, between you and I, a which for a that, and so on. I am puzzled by what motive could underlie the unusual ferocity which an irregardless or a hopefully or a singular media can elicit. In his second edition of On Writing Well (New York, 1980), for example, William Zinsser, an otherwise amiable man I'm sure, uses, and quotes not disapprovingly, words like detestable vulgarity (p. 43), garbage (p. 44), atrocity (p. 46), horrible (p. 48); oaf (p. 42), idiot (p. 43), and simple illiteracy (p. 46), to comment on usages like OK, hopefully, the affix -wise, and myself in He invited Mary and myself to dinner.

The last thing I want to seem is sanctimonious. But as I am sure Zinsser would agree, what happens in Cambodia and Afghanistan could more reasonably be called horrible atrocities.[10]

If SE violations do not impede communication, and if error may not even be located in the language of the speaker/writer, but in the interaction and social positioning of the two, then the anger displayed here by Zinsser (reflecting as it does Newman’s anxiety) needs to be examined.

As I’ve pointed out, linguists view error quite differently than the general public tends to. Rules, to linguists, are mostly invisible; they are the black box that mysteriously turns words into understandable conceptual utterances. From this perspective, I want to look at some grammar pet peeves (primarily from Internet memes and eCards) and see if we can figure out what they really make fun of. Are they making fun of various grammar mistakes because they impede clear communication, or are they making fun of what such language usage represents? In other words, are the issues addressed in these cards matters of language as a tool for communication, or language as a symbol, a monument? Is the underlying peevishness related to grammaticality or to the lack of reverence paid to the listener’s monument?

Here are three pet peeves to consider:

One thing to notice about the first pet peeve, if we look beyond the overt playfulness, is that confusion over quite, quit, and quiet is not a matter of grammar at all. Yes, the wrong one at the wrong time might impede communication, but the cause of this error would almost never be a misunderstanding of the meaning of each word. I’m sure we have all typed quite when we meant quite (I meant to say quit there); but most of the time, we have caught the mistake before finalizing our work. This is what marks the difference between another early Chomskyan notion: competence and performance errors. A competence error can be understood as a mistake caused by a rule that the writer/speaker doesn’t know; a performance error would be a violation of a rule that the writer/speaker does know, but just slipped up. We all make typos; some of us are better at catching them than others. The person who owns this first peeve is really peeved about poor proofreading, not grammar. The truer error on this card, one might say, is calling it a “grammar” peeve.

What about the suppose to/supposed to distinction?

This SE error could also be caused by a typo (plus a lack of proofreading), similar to the quit/quiet/quite issue. However, this peeve opens up a whole new discussion: some writers may legitimately not know that—in Standard Written English—one is supposed to write supposed to.  Or, they may know that in some contexts (e.g., at home) it’s suppose to and in others (e.g., at school) it’s supposed to, but they may not always remember which is which. To clarify, suppose to is an error in SE, but it is correct (spoken regularly and predictably) in other varieties of English. Some nonstandard dialects of English are marked by what (SE-speaking) linguists call final consonant cluster reduction. African American English, for example, is marked by pronunciation of words that end before they would in SE, e.g., tess for test or hann for hand. The question becomes, then, while for (adult) SE speaking writers, suppose to would likely be a typo, is the suppose to in this case not a typo but a written translation of the way this writer has heard the phrase pronounced by family, friends, community members, etc., for most of his or her life? And if so, then what is the angry reader really angry about? What monument is he or she really upholding in this instance?

The next peeve pushes these questions further. As a violation of SE, it would be hard to imagine one met with more aggression than axe for ask. Here’s another card for good measure:

As was the case with suppose to, the pronunciation /aks/ [axe] is a rule-governed, stable, predictable part of several nonstandard English dialects, specifically rural southern dialects and inner-city African American dialects. As such, axe is in no way a mispronunciation of ask; it is not a failed attempt to speak properly, and it did not begin as ask and deteriorate into axe. In fact, it may be that what the authors of these cards don’t know about their own language is more worthy of scorn.

As I described earlier, linguistically speaking, Englishes are dialects; there simply is no one, pure language called English. Dialects tend to be regional, since contact with others is one way in which languages evolve. Languages are also born and killed through conquest, colonization, war, and imperialism. When people find themselves in a land where they need to communicate with others and no one shares a common language, they generally adopt features of the local language (called the contact language) and, combined with features of their native languages, work toward codes of communication; this is how they might come to do business, to stay safe, or to communicate for any other purposes.

As these codes begin to stabilize—as they become less off-the-cuff, interpersonal communication events and begin to assume regularity, linguists refer to them as pidgins: a language developed purely for communication, and which has no native speakers. In the case where these people remain in place for long periods of time, future generations nativize this pidgin, giving the language greater stability and more complexity. As a native language, it now takes on more cognitive and social functions (along with its communicative functions), and at this point, it may be termed a creole. (There are languages that have been called Pidgin and Creole, but these shouldn’t be entirely confused with the linguistic terms pidgin and creole.) In the case of the enslaved Africans, taken from all kinds of different language communities, brought to the plantations in the southern U.S., and left to linguistically fend for themselves, many linguists theorize that today’s African American English(es) originated as described above. The enslaved people’s closest contact to English was through the white workers, who were not there to be language educators, but whose English became a contact language through which enslaved peoples from various native languages could form linguistic interaction, and through which pidgins and eventually creoles were formed and stabilized and then nativized.[11] The stability of African American English as an inner-city language, from LA to Chicago to New York to Boston is well studied, and is generally believed to be a result of the Great Migration, the African American diaspora from the rural south to the inner cities around the country.

How did axe end up in the language of white, rural southerners and inner-city African Americans? The languages of these groups still share many linguistic features, long after slavery and the Great Migrations, and axe is one. If you look up the history of axe versus ask, you see various accounts that date to Middle and sometimes Olde English, and by most accounts there was a time when either was deemed correct. Etymonline.com, as one example, in its etymology of the word ask states, “Modern dialectal ax is as old as O.E. acsian and was an accepted literary variant until c.1600.” Over time, ask became “correct” and axe gradually became an abomination, worthy of ire, scorn, mockery, and in need of correction. And while historical accounts differ as to the causes of why ask won the battle, what is certain is that there is no linguistic inferiority in the utterance axe. As with all language issues, the matter was settled by power and privilege. The people who said ask became the people with the power to say ask was right and axe was wrong.

What is also certain is that in no way is axe a mispronunciation of ask, nor is it a failed attempt to speak correctly. Nonstandard dialects only appear this way (pure, correct) from the view of the dominant dialect speaker who assumes that their dialect (perhaps because of its socio-political prestige) is intrinsically better than the attempts at proper English they hear around them every day. As evidence, consider this post from englishforum.com titled “Ax instead of Ask.” The original poster axes, “How is is [sic] possible to mispronounce such a simple word[?]” I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of responses state the fact that axe is not a mispronunciation, that it has a history behind it and is part of certain community dialects (though not everyone was prepared to see it this way, to be sure). One particularly powerful post reads:

The pronunciation of the word “ask” as “ax” was standard in the form of fossil English spoken by my Grandmother. She was born in roughly 1885 and was “raised,” not reared, in the American South in the Ozark Plateau, a region covering the western portions of Missouri and Arkansas. She lived in Arkansas. As children of one of her daughters, who spoke and wrote perfect English, we were horrified to hear Grandmother say “ax.” I would give everything I own today to talk again with her for one single day.[12]

To me, this comment echoes what African American educational researcher and linguist Lisa Delpit said in response to questions over the issue of African American English (at the time, but no longer, referred to as Ebonics):

I have been asked often enough recently, “What do you think about Ebonics? Are you for it or against it?” My answer must be neither. I can be neither for Ebonics or against Ebonics any more than I can be for or against air. It exists. It is the language spoken by many of our African-American children. It is the language they heard as their mothers nursed them and changed their diapers and played peek-a-boo with them. It is the language through which they first encountered love, nurturance and joy.[13]

Given these comments and this brief history, another look at the last card seems in order:

To view languages in terms of correctness of one form over all others is to misread what language is. Yes, language serves communicative purposes, of course; but as we have seen, language does much more than that. A people’s language is that people’s culture, collective identity, history, values, epistemology, its connection to the world and to each other. All people’s languages are monuments to these things. In fact, I suggest that it is only when we fail to see languages this way (i.e., as monuments) that we believe that the insistence that SE is better than other Englishes is something done to benefit the speakers of these nonstandard English varieties—to help correct them, to help them speak with precision and exactness, rather than an effort to uphold the dominant status of our own dialect. 

Difference versus Deficit

Whenever people confuse difference for deficiency, things get ugly. This confusion lies behind statements such as Mitt Romney’s in No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, where he said, “There are superior cultures, and ours is one of them.”[14] Romney, of course, is not alone in this belief; Michelle Bachman recently stated:

There is a movement afoot that's occurring and part of that is this whole philosophical idea of multi-cultural diversity, which on the face sounds wonderful. Let's appreciate and value everyone's cultures. But guess what? Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal.  And one thing that we're seeing is that in the midst of this violence that’s being encouraged by al Jazeera and by the jihadists that's occurring, is that we are seeing that those who are coming into France—which had a beautiful culture—the French culture is actually diminished. It's going away. And just with the population of France they are losing Western Europeans and it’s being taken over by muh...by a Muslim ethic. Not that Muslims are bad. But they are not assimilating.[15]

I cite these merely as modern examples of an age-old belief that what is different from us is worse than us. This notion underpins every kind of intolerance and racism, sets the stage for colonization and imperialism. To rephrase Bachman’s last line, she is saying, “It’s not that Muslims as people are bad, it’s just that they need to be less… Muslim; so to the extent that they are willing to become just regular people [assimilate with the Europeans—who, evidently, aren’t Muslim] they are fine.” I may exaggerate some, but one only needs to go back 100 years to find this very sentiment stated explicitly in the matter of educating Native Americans. Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School—at the time, a progressive thinker who believed that Indians were not savages and could actually be educated if given the chance—expressed the following statement:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one… In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.[16]

Here are some famous before-and-after pictures of students from the Carlisle Indian Boarding School, which demonstrate what such killing/saving/educating looks like:




While the goals of people like Pratt would (one hopes) be crushed by public scrutiny today, those who study language do perceive similarities in the way SE is valued over other dialects as more correct, proper, exact, etc. We see peoples’ language, culture, history, values, identity—all as one thing. And so the drive to erase and replace what are viewed as deficient language varieties with correct ones, with exactness, makes us wary. Composition scholar Irvin Peckham points out:

Language is a particularly effective mechanism for maintaining distinctions among social classes because it functions both to communicate and to signal identity, with one function frequently disguised as the other. Teachers, for example, may correct working-class students’ deviations from the conventions of middle-class English [SE], telling the students that the errors make their writing difficult to understand when in fact the teachers are correcting social class behavior manifested through language codes. Behind this masking lies the clear message that the social groups speaking through these “incorrect” language codes are incorrect social groups.[20]

The final eCard I present dramatizes this point:

The humor in this card is overtly aimed at those little mistakes that people make, and how those mistakes tend to make them sound less educated; but in light of the current discussion, the humor here rests on less innocent sentiments. Beyond an attempt to poke fun at a speaker’s language error, this card’s implication is, “If you don’t speak like me (if you aren’t one of us), you aren’t educated or intelligent.” It says, “Don’t say ‘I seen’ the way your parents, friends, community, ancestors, elders, etc., say it and have said it; say it the way mine say it: ‘I see. I saw. I have seen.’ Honor my monument, not yours.” How different are these sentiments from those of Romney, Bachman, or Pratt?

One could argue that they are indeed quite different, that I have gone too far. But I think all such sentiments do rely upon an arbitrary notion of correctness—one based on privilege and power, not on any inherent truth or greatness—which then allows for those in dominant positions to (continue to) belittle those from historically marginalized groups, and so it goes. I realize that the overt intention of all these eCards is to playfully correct mistakes in people’s speaking (maybe to vent some frustration about… something), but I hope that I have been able to complicate this issue, to reveal that properness in language is far from absolute, far from a matter of efficiency of communication; that matters of correctness (of the Standard/dominant dialect) are indeed matters of arbitrary power, of who has the voice to say what is correct, and to say that all variations are just misguided attempts at being correct that reveal the speakers’ ineptitude, lack of education, lack of precision of thought, lack of grace.

Language, like all monuments, serves to commemorate the culture, history, identity of a people. The danger comes when we mistake what is a monument—a symbol whose value is in its meaning to us, not in the actual brick and mortar that hold it together—for a platonic notion of Truth, which necessarily sets up a belief that all other ways of being are false. My intention here was to present the ways in which the common view of proper English tends to be riddled with notions that there is one true, correct way to speak—which is simply not true from any scientific, empirical, or functional point of view. Yet it would be foolish to think that someone speaking in “I seen”s and “I don’t have no”s will have the same opportunities to achieve mainstream social goods (test scores, jobs, leadership roles) as the person speaking SE. My intention was to reveal this fact for what it is and what it isn’t. This fact does not reveal the truth or greatness of SE, and hence the deficiency of other ways of speaking (i.e., other cultures, histories, identities, values, etc.). On the contrary, this fact may reveal more about the speakers of SE, about their real motivation for guarding that monument, and about the price paid when we celebrate dominance for its own sake.

Josh Lederman is a Visiting Lecturer of English Composition and TESOL at Wellesley College. He earned his PhD from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he specialized in the social implications of writing assessment, particularly concerning incoming first-year college students.




[1] Newman, Edwin. Strictly Speaking, 1974, qtd. in Heath, Shirley Brice. “Standard English: Biography of a Symbol.” Standards and Dialects in English. Edited by T. Shopen and J. M. Williams. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop Publishers, 1980.

[2] Siegel, Jeff. “Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation?” TESOL Quarterly 33, no. 4 (199): 7.

[3] Gee, James Paul. Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. New York: Routledge, 1999: 1.

[4] Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” New York Times, July 29, 1979: 19.

[5] See Canagarajah, Suresh. “ Negotiating the Local in English as a Lingua Franca.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 26 (2006): 197-218; House, Juliane. “English as a Lingua Franca: A threat to multilingualism?” Journal of Sociolinguistics 7, no. 4 (2003): 556-578; Jenkins, Jennifer. “Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca.” TESOL Quarterly 40, no. 1 (2006): 157-181; Seidlhofer, Barbara. “Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24 (2004): 209-239.

[6] I strongly recommend reading this piece to see how he makes his case; it’s too creative to give away.

[7] Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47, no. 2 (1985): 111.

[8] Murdick, William 1996. What English teachers need to know about grammar. English Journal 85 (7):39-40.

[9] Krashen, Steven D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. San Francisco: Alemany Press, 1982.

[10] Williams, Joseph. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32, no. 2 (1981): 152.

[11] Whether African American English is a dialect of English or a creole, with English as one of its components, is a subject of some debate, and beyond the scope of this article.

[12] English Forums. “Ax Instead of Ax.”

[13] Delpit, Lisa. Rethinking Schools. “The Real Ebonics Debate: What Should Teachers Do?”

[14] Viser, Matt. “Romney’s Culture Remark Offers Peak at Worldview.” Boston Globe. August 3, 2012.

[15] Diamond, Marie. “Bachman on Muslims in 2005: ‘Not All Cultures Are Equal.’” Think.

[16] Larile, Gregory. “Carlisle Indian School Transformed Children: ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’” Wild West (2007): 24.

[20] Peckham, Irvin. Going North Thinking West: The Intersection of Social Class, Critical Thinking, and Politicized Writing Instruction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010: 28.


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