Perspectives on Written & Spoken English
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If you cringe when you see a sign at a grocery store checkout line that reads “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer,” then you just might be a prescriptivist. Prescriptivists contend that there is one right way to use language, and every other option is wrong. Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to understand language patterns by studying naturally occurring language. Descriptivists don’t think of language as being either right or wrong; rather, they try to explain why different language varieties exist. This unit explores a number of questions about language norms, including where grammar rules come from, who decides what a word means, the differences between spoken and written English, and the influence of e-mail and instant messaging on written language.
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
Schools of Thought/Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism * (DYSA/1)
1.3 [01:08:33] (10:12)
begins with a conversation between Robert MacNeil and New York Magazine theater critic Dr. John Simon. Dr. Simon is a prescriptivist that is, someone who believes that written and spoken language is correct if it conforms to the rules found in grammar books and style guides. Opposing this view is Dr. Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dr. Sheidlower, a descriptivist does not view changes to the English language as dangerous. He includes in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) new usages of established words and new words that are introduced into the language. The OED draws on texts from all aspects of life including hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is a current source of new words and new meanings for existing words (to learn more about hip-hop and African American English, click here). To learn more about hip-hop, MacNeil interviews the linguist Dr. Cece Cutler. (To learn more about language crossing and Cutler’s study of White male teens who embrace hip-hop culture and language, see the unit on Communicative Choices & Linguistic Style.
MacNeil then visits some teens in an Internet café to examine the language of instant messaging (IMing) (Link to IM lingo)This specialized written language form closely resembles spoken language in a number of ways, which blurs the traditional distinction between spoken and written English.
What is Standard English? (DYSA/1) 1.5
searches for an answer to the question of what is—or was—Standard American English. MacNeil visits linguist Dr. William Labov for help answering this question. Dr. Labov describes the broadcast standard that most Americans think of as Mainstream (Standard) American English. Notions about what is standard, Dr. Labov notes, change over time. To illustrate this point, Dr. Labov plays audio clips of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke the upper class New York dialect that was considered to be the model of Standard English in his time. Some of the distinctive features of Roosevelt’s speech include the dropping or the “r” sound in words like fear and storm and the pronunciation of the “t” sound as a “t” instead of a “d”in words like shattering or butter. Dr. Labov then describes how following World War II this way of speaking lost its status as the broadcast standard, and in fact, dropping the “r”sound at the end of words is now associated with lower class speech in New York.
Language Attitudes/Dennis Preston on the Train (DYSA/1) 1.6a
Preston on the Train Again (DYSA/1) 1.6c [0:30:19] (1:03)
introduces Dr. Dennis Preston, a linguist who studies Americans’ perceptions about English. Dr. Preston studies people’s perceptions and attitudes about language, which he calls folk linguistics He asks people riding a train to mark areas on a map where English is spoken differently. They identify the areas where they believe people speak most correctly or most incorrectly. As the film explains, the Midland region is largely seen as the most correct area, whereas New York City and the South are generally viewed as the least correct areas. However, correctness does not necessarily correspond to what is enjoyable to hear, and some train riders say that they enjoy hearing Southerners speak.
Written English (DYSA/1)
1.7 [01:31:21] (5:01)
finds MacNeil driving into the Midland dialect region (link to map), the area now considered by most Americans to be where Mainstream American English is spoken. Here, MacNeil calls Dr. Ulle Lewis, the operator of a grammar hotline (link to Tidewater Community College grammar hotline guide). Dr. Lewis asserts that by sharing a written standard of communication, which she calls grapholect, we can assure that English speakers could still communicate by writing even if they did not understand each other’s speech. MacNeil then visits Kirk Arnott, managing editor of The Columbus Dispatch newspaper. Arnott talks about how the speech of radio and television announcers has influenced the writing in newspapers, making them more colloquial. He also discusses what he believes to be some common misuses of words in newspaper stories.
What are Prescriptivism and Descriptivism?
A prescriptivist approach to language essentially tells us what structures and usages are acceptable or unacceptable. This approach is backed by what we find in grammar books and dictionaries. The descriptivist approach attempts to discover the ways in which people use language naturally and to describe the patterns that govern language use for a particular group at a particular time. A prescriptivist would say that it’s improper to use double negatives, as in he don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nobody, whereas a descriptivist would say that some groups of people use double negatives frequently, while other groups use them infrequently or not at all. In general, prescriptivists are concerned with what they believe to be correct pronunciations, word meanings, and grammatical structures Prescriptivists may consider departures from the prescribed rules, or changes in the language, to represent language decay.
A descriptivist, on the other hand, views language change as inevitable, seeks to understand what prompts change, and views change as neither positive nor negative. Understanding actual language usage helps us understand the social, cultural, and psychological forces at work in society and how they shape interaction with the world. Understanding actual language can even give us insight into how our brains operate and are structured. All languages and language varieties operate according to regular patterns. Many of these patterns are represented in our unconscious minds and become evident only in the careful study of actual language usages.
Prescriptivism is not a new phenomenon, as Dr. John Fought tells us in his essay, "Gatekeeping." In fact, prescriptivism dates back thousands of years, well before the rise of English, which is more than 1000 years old. Many prescriptive rules for English are modeled after the structure of classical Latin, even though English did not derive from Latin and is quite different from Latin in its structure. One example is the rule against splitting infinitives. In Latin—as well as its modern descendents (the Romance languages, for example French and Spanish)—an infinitive is always one word whereas in English an infinitive is always the word to plus a verb. For example, Latin ire = English to go, and Latin esse = English to be. Thus in Latin and the modern Romance languages, it is not possible to split an infinitive, but it is quite possible in English, as for example in “to boldly go.” The rule against splitting infinitives was imposed on the English language by people who believe Latin to be a better language somehow. It does not reflect the way English is structured now or ever was in the past.
Prescriptive rules are also arbitrary in the sense that they change over time. Just as people have different notions of what constitutes good taste in fashion at different time periods, so too do they have different ideas regarding good taste in language. For example, it was perfectly acceptable in Chaucer’s day to use double (or even triple) negatives (from Chaucer’s description of the Friar, “ there wasn’t no man nowhere so virtuous”) while Shakespeare used double comparatives, as in his famous “most unkindest cut of all” (from Julius Caesar). Ironically, using these constructions today is associated with being uneducated.
Are Dictionaries Prescriptive?
The goal of most dictionary makers is to describe the way words are being used, pronounced, and spelled. In this sense, they are largely descriptive. When we use dictionaries as an authority for correct usage, pronunciation, or spelling, we use them as a prescriptive guide. However, starting with the first English dictionary, made by Samuel Johnson in 1755, dictionaries have always offered multiple acceptable pronunciations and definitions of words. Many offer alternative spellings (for example, gray or grey), plural forms (for example, indices or indexes), or past tense forms (for example, burned or burnt). The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a specialized dictionary that captures regional variation in words and pronunciations. It is a product of interviews with people all over the country concerning how people pronounce certain words and which variant of a word they typically use (for example, bag, sack, poke). Another important source for DARE is written materials from different time periods that illustrate how American English usages have changed since the country’s founding. Though DARE is not yet complete, the first four volumes (through sk-) are currently available.
Where Do Word Meanings Come From?
With few exceptions, the meanings assigned to a particular word are completely arbitrary. For example, the sounds and letters that when combined make up the word tree have no characteristics that could possibly influence, much less dictate, our understanding of an actual tree. Objects and concepts are expressed with quite different words in different languages: tree is arbol in Spanish and Baum in German. Furthermore, if you ask a group of people to imagine a tree, chances are they will have some different mental pictures. Perhaps some would picture a pine tree while others would picture an oak. Some would imagine a small tree, some a big tree. Some images may include a tire swing, a tree house, or a bird’s nest, while others may not. However, a few words do seem to have some inherent association with what they refer to. Onomatopoetic words sound like their real world reference. Thus, ding, crash, and clang all sound like the sound they describe. Likewise, bark, meow, and chirp all sound at least somewhat similar to the noises that animals make (though different languages sometimes use different words for animal sounds; see The Sounds of the World’s Animals. Nonetheless, most word meanings are essentially arbitrary, and it is only by convention that certain combinations of sounds and letters take on certain meanings in particular languages and dialects.
What is the Difference between Written and Spoken English?
When we write, we can see the boundaries between words; but when we speak, there is no actual boundary between the words (our brain is able to insert them based on the stream of sounds we hear). Thus, when we hear “jeetyet,” we can understand it to mean did you eat yet; whereas if we read jeetyet on a page, we might look for a dictionary. In some ways, writing and speaking are very different, and we have to learn to map one onto the other so that we can write down what we hear and can say what is written. Learning to speak takes very little teaching. Learning to write can take a great deal of teaching. Other differences are worth noting as well. We do not punctuate our speech by saying “comma” or “period,” but we do accomplish the function of those punctuation marks through our pauses and our intonation. Thus, “you’re going to bed” said with rising intonation would be heard as a question whereas if it were uttered without this intonation pattern it would be heard as a statement or command.
In many ways, written language is a poor reflection of spoken language. It does not capture features such as speech rate, intonation, pitch, and other clues to interpretation that spoken English can provide. The introduction of :-) winkies ;-) and smiley faces in informal writing, e-mail, and IMing, can help signal irony and other subtle sentiments in written language, which helps compensate for the lack of voice cues.
What is Standard English?
Because we use language on a daily basis, we all have an idea about what Standard English is. Still, we may be hard pressed to explain exactly what we mean by Standard English or to name people who use it consistently. To describe what Standard English encompasses, it is best to keep written and spoken English separate.
Written Standard English is the easier of the two to define. It is generally understood as the version of the language that conforms to dictionary definitions and meanings and the rules for syntax, punctuation, and other features laid out by grammar and style manuals. Obviously, written Standard American English is slightly different from written Standard British English in spelling (color, realize vs. colour, realise), some word usage (elevator vs. lift), and even some syntactic patterns. For example, Americans would consider the phrase the government is passing new laws to be correct while British people would favor the government are passing new laws.
Even though there are some differences between style guides, many people have a general sense of what written Standard English is, especially when the audience and the purpose for writing calls for Standard English. However, we may choose to depart from written Standard English for certain audiences and purposes. For example, we may decide that it is acceptable or even preferable to use contractions in diaries, e-mail, or letters to make the language more personal, but we may avoid contractions in writing reports. We may avoid correct but awkward phrases such as am I not? We may end sentences with a preposition, or we may use who in place of whom in order to achieve an informal style.
It is useful to think not of a single written Standard English but of a range of written Englishes. Its span is from formal written Standard English through colloquial or informal Standard English all the way to written vernacular English. Writers’ choices along this continuum are governed by their purposes and audiences. To be competent in a variety of contexts requires knowing the rules for different styles of written English. Spoken English, similarly, exists along a range. Sometimes it is advantageous to sound more formal, sometimes more casual.
While people might agree that written Standard American English is fairly monolithic, spoken Standard American English (or better, Mainstream American English) is less so. Many people have an idea of what Mainstream American English is, and many point to the Midland dialect region or newscasters as the model of spoken Mainstream American English. But there is still a good deal of variation within the speech of Midland residents and even between different newscasters. It may be more useful to think about there being different versions of Mainstream American English in different locations. That is, what is considered to be standard in Chicago may be somewhat different from what is considered standard in Atlanta or Richmond. Often, the standard for a region is based on a cultural or economic center of that region.
Further, very few people speak Standard English the way they write Standard English. Speech tends to incorporate informal features, such as contractions, except on highly formal occasions. In fact, Americans tend to demand a certain amount of informality in speech. Formal speech can be seen as stilted or even rude. Thus, the closest we can get to defining spoken Standard American English is perhaps “spoken informal Mainstream American English for ______,” where the blank is filled in by the area (Chicago, the South, California, etc.). This informal standard would include the regional pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar that are not locally stigmatized.
Even though it is difficult to define Standard English, especially in its spoken form, it is a valuable concept nonetheless. Most people tend to view language in terms of “correct” and “incorrect” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable,” and we craft our speech and writing according to what we feel is appropriate for a situation or audience. Feedback from a listener or reader can encourage us to adjust our level of standardness. If someone has a hard time understanding what we say, we may try to use more common vocabulary or ways of structuring words into phrases. If a boss responds casually to our formal speech, we may respond more casually in subsequent exchanges. Negotiation is not always possible, though: When there is a clear power relationship (a teacher and student or a boss and employee), the person with more authority may prescribe the level of usage expected.
Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism
1. John Simon: Dr. Simon describes the state of English as sick and dying, as if it were a living organism. In what ways is language like a living organism? In what ways is it different? In what other ways do people describe language as though it is living?
2. John Simon: Dr. Simon claims that in his experience, “language can always disintegrate further” and that “there is no bottom” to language degeneration. How would a descriptivist respond to this? What would be the outcome if English is actually disintegrating and continues to do so?
3. Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism: Many people in Do You Speak American consider themselves descriptivists, including Dr. Jesse Sheidlower and other linguists that MacNeil interviews. Consider the way these people present themselves in the interviews. Do they use mainstream or a non-mainstream language variety when they speak? Do you think they write in Standard English for their work? Is it possible to be a descriptivist and still use prescriptive norms? How would you describe your own use of language in various situations—for instance, writing a term paper, chatting casually with a professor, inviting a friend to a party, arguing with a sibling, requesting information from a stranger over the phone?
4. IMing: Does instant messaging present a threat to spoken and/or written language? Does e-mail? Consider that people have been writing informal personal letters for centuries. How is e-mail similar to or different from informal letters? How does the range between formality and informality in written language compare with the range in spoken language? Can there be a standard instant messaging language?
What is Standard English? (DYSA/1)
5. FDR and Standard English:
Dr. William Labov says, “We hear
British people [speak] and we love it, but it’s not right for an
American.” When you hear someone speak with a British accent, what do
you think about that person? Why do you suppose Americans love to hear
British people speak but dislike an American who sounds British? Are
there any circumstances in which Americans would want to sound British?
Folk Perceptions of Dialects/Dennis
the Train (DYSA/1)
6. Good English and Bad English: MacNeil says, “Americans are ambivalent about language. They may think that New York and Southern accents are bad English, but they can also find them charming.” Is it true that Americans are ambivalent about language? Where do you feel bad English is spoken? How would you describe this English? Is it the sound, the structures, or the words that stick out the most?Has anyone ever told you that you speak bad English or otherwise commented on your speech? If so, how did you respond?
Written English (DYSA/1)
7. Ohio: MacNeil says, “Americans are terribly concerned with correctness.” Do you agree? From which groups of people do we tend to expect correctness? From which people do we typically not demand correctness? Are there any people that we prefer be non-correct in their speech?
8. Newspapers: In the video, newspaper editor Kirk Arnott mentions that some journalists occasionally use the word nonplussed to mean “unexcited” when it actually means “confused.” In this connection, consider a statement from Thomas Jefferson: “Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if illformed it is rejected in society, if wellformed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries.” Why do words mean what they do? Can a word have a real meaning? What would happen if most people started using nonplussed to mean “unexcited”? What has happened now that many people have started using hopefully to mean something like “it is to be hoped”?How would a descriptivist answer this question? How would a prescriptivist answer it?
9. Correcting Spoken vs. Written Language: Are you more likely to judge the way someone speaks or the way someone writes? Do you think it is a bigger offense to use non-mainstream English in writing or in speaking? What sort of writing? What sort of speaking?
10. Language Standards and Written Language: Dr. Ulle Lewis talks about speaking the way we write. Many of the languages in the world are oral languages only, with no writing system. Do you think it likely that an oral language with no written version would have a mainstream (standard) version? Why or why not?
1. Writing assignment : Use any of the discussion questions above as a prompt for an essay or position paper, a journal entry, or any other general writing assignment.
2. Read (and respond) assignment: Read one of the following and present an overview to the class: Baron, "Language in its Social Setting" ; Cutler, "Crossing" ; Finegan, "What is 'Correct' Language?" ; J. Fought, "Gatekeeping" ; Nunberg, "Decline of English Grammar"
3. Language Change, For Better or Worse?: Did you know that the English of 1000 years ago was so different from today’s English that we can’t read it today without translation? Here’s a small sample from the book of Genesis in the Bible:
On angynne gescēop God heofonan and eorðan. [Old English]
In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. [Modern English]
Do you think English has deteriorated since the Old English version was written? What criteria would you use to make your claim? Explain the difference between change and deterioration. Use your answers to these questions to discuss a prescriptive attitude to modern English, and as you do so consider the following quotation from Jefferson: “ I am no friend, therefore, to what is called Purism , but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary I consider the one as destroying the nerve and beauty of language, while the other improves both, and adds to its copiousness.”
4. Point/counterpoint debate: Choose a side of the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate and research your position. Select a partner or a group and debate your view and findings against other students who are on the opposite side of the issue.
5. Translation into non-Mainstream English: Take the following selection of prose and translate it into a variety of informal English, instant messaging language, or a non-mainstream form of English.
“The Tale-Tell Heart” Edgar Allan Poe
“No doubt I now grew very pale,--but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased--and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound--much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath--and yet the officers heard it not.
6. Literary-based exercise: Many authors intentionally depart from written Standard English conventions. Obviously, American local color writing is primarily based on differences in language between spoken and written forms. Another genre that departs from traditional prescriptive norms is poetry. Differences occur in word usage, sentence structure, capitalization, and punctuation. Analyze instances of authors departing from or flouting prescriptive norms. Hypothesize about the reasons an author would choose to use non-prescriptive language. Emily Dickinson and e. e. cummings are both good poets to examine. Local color writers include Joel Chandler Harris, Charles Chesnutt, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, Zora Neale Hurston, Bret Harte, and Jack London.
7. Non-mainstream English in dialogue: In your analysis of the writers in (6), pay special attention to those who write dialogue. Do the authors write dialogue in mainstream or non-mainstream written English? If they write non-mainstream, what would be the consequences if they had chosen to write in mainstream English? Would the character seem the same? How would you express your language style if you were writing a book with yourself as a main character? Would you write the dialogue in mainstream or non-mainstream English?
8. Non-mainstream English in newspapers: Find articles from several different mainstream newspapers (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, etc.). Pay special attention to the use of direct quotations in the articles. Are any of the quotes written in non-mainstream English? Compare your findings here to the findings in (6b). Is quoted language used the same in literature as it is in newspapers? Why or why not?
9. Data collection exercise: Winston Churchill is purported to have said, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Collect examples of sentences that end with prepositions. Rewrite them so that the preposition does not occur at the end of the sentence and comment on the effect of doing so.
10. Folk Linguistics map assignment: Print a copy of a United States map by clicking here (PDF). Draw divisions of where you think regional varieties of English are spoken, and label them (“California English,” “Southern English,” etc.). Select one of the regions you designated as a topic of a short report on “Linguistic characteristics of ------.” In your report, describe as fully as you can the speech that characterizes that region. Support the findings in your report.
11. Fun Quiz: Complete the quizzes found on the DARE Web site. Are there words in the quizzes that you never heard before? Choose two to three unfamiliar terms from the quizzes and research their history of use.
12. How prescriptive are you?: Say the following sentences out loud to a partner or a group.For each sentence, ask your audience to agree or disagree on its “correctness.” Would they say the sentence this way? If not, how would they say it differently, and under what circumstances?
Some prescriptivists might say the sentences in 1-12 should be uttered as:
13. Grammar and non-mainstream varieties: In Do You Speak American?, Dr. William Labov discusses how Franklin Delano Roosevelt had certain British characteristics in his speech, including what Dr. Labov refers to as “r-lessness.” While r-less speech was considered high class in Roosevelt’s time, today it is often stigmatized—that is, regarded unfavorably. Give some examples of other speech characteristics that are stigmatized today.Is there something in the language itself that promotes these unfavorable attitudes? Or, do people tend to stigmatize certain speech characteristics because they hold stereotypes about the speakers who use such features?
14. Research and reflect : Collect various kinds of dictionaries: old, new, Web-based, etc. Look up definitions for the following words, noting which definitions are marked formal or informal and ways of describing how the words are used:
Which dictionaries include definitions that would account for usages like the following?
These yo-yos are wicked fun .
It’s snowing like mad . or It’s mad cold outside.
Your car is hot, I want one just like it!
So tell me the scoop on this new intern .
“I saw James last night.” “Oh, is he out?”
Do some dictionaries appear to be more descriptive or more prescriptive than others? For an additional exercise, come up with five more words that have both a conventional meaning and an informal or slang definition.
15. Discovery : Comparison of standards in Renaissance writing: Read portions of text from Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Johnson, three British writers from roughly the same time period. What present day prescriptive, written conventions are followed by all writers? What conventions are not followed? Is spelling standardized? Is punctuation standardized? How can you tell?
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The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
William and Flora Hewlett
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