what speech do we like best?
toll booth operator

Verb Machine
Many irregular verb conjugations are based on fashion rather than logic

The Decline of Grammar
Geoffrey Nunberg makes an impassioned plea for civility among grammarians  when assessing language change

Additional Resources
Correct American Index

Correct American


Barring The Gates Of Language
“You say po-tay-toe, and I say po-tah-toe…” Our appearance, manner and the way we speak broadcast a social message. Language gatekeepers – often self-appointed – judge how we speak. John Fought explains how linguists try to help us be language-neutral. Read Full Essay

As we go about our lives, we move in and out of many social groups — at school, at work, in our family, at places of worship, soccer, bowling, Little League and more. Where we live, where we went to school, our jobs, our choices of cars/music/clothes/hairstyles, all of these and more are emblems of who we are and what we have become. In these smaller social groups, we interact with a web of family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors and everyone else around us. Our interpersonal connections shape and reflect our perceptions of ourselves and everyone else around us. The ways we speak also reflect social diversity — in fine detail.

Social groups can be thought of as being surrounded by boundaries, with members inside and everyone else outside. Gatekeepers are people who tend to these boundaries, keeping insiders in and outsiders out by opening and closing an imaginary (or even real) gate. Many institutions have people or departments whose function is to let (or lock) you in or out — ticket takers, prison guards, admissions officers, personnel managers and so on. However, society also has its freelance gatekeepers. These are people who have decided — on behalf of their bosses or from their own strong feelings — that some people (or behaviors or beliefs or words) are wrong and should be kept out. Gatekeeping is an exercise of authority, even when the authority is only imagined.

Gatekeepers can and often do swing — or slam — that gate freely over language. Language seems to attract their attention because ways of speaking occupy such a special place in social signaling. Our speech can offer a rich selection of details; it’s a convenient stand-in for other kinds of STIGMA that are recognized but not openly acknowledged.

For example, discrimination based on appearance, on race, sex, religion or national origin is TABOO and often illegal, but discrimination based on particular details of language use by men and women, people of different religions, people from other countries and so on is not usually seen that way. Thus, multiple negatives such as He ain't got none are stigmatized as ‘illogical’ when used in African-American Vernacular English (but not in standard French, Il n'en a pas, or in Spanish, No tiene nada.). Double modals such as He might could are considered an amusing "Redneck" trait, but similar formations are viewed as high-class in the context of British English, as in I should do.

We may think we can reject a person’s stigmatized language use without being prejudiced against the person or the group. It’s just their language that’s unacceptable…right? We wouldn’t want somebody at our school, place of worship, or workplace to sound like that, would we? It might make a bad impression.

Unlike the prescriptive grammar we learn in school, linguistics teaches us to see the interlocking patterns of language form and language use in a neutral way. Linguistics gives us the tools to dissect language into its fundamental components and examine the recurring relationships among them. We can then begin to map these intricate patterns in ways that help us understand how a particular language serves its everyday communicative functions — as well as how usage differences match or interact with other structural differences in a society.

For instance, most of what seems like a jumble of “non-standard” forms when compared with the teacher-approved list of about 200 irregular English verbs can be shown to fit one of a few simple models similar to the regular verb pattern. What’s more, the non-standard forms make as much sense as the standard ones. The difference is only that language gatekeepers have approved the arbitrary choices on the standard lists. The forms in common use are stigmatized. Linguistics helps us to understand language patterns and that, in turn, can help us unlock the gates of prejudice and misunderstanding.


Double modal: the use of two modal auxiliary verbs with the same main verb: He shouldn't ought to go.

Gatekeeping: controlling access to goods, services, or information, usually applied by individuals or groups in hierarchical organizations.

Multiple negation: the use of more than one negative particle or word in the same construction: He didn't say nothing.

Standard British English: the variety of English associated with the English upper class, especially, with graduates of the elite 'public schools.'

Stigma: a wound or scar; here, any social blemish, such as unfashionable clothes, socially inappropriate grammar, or the wrong parents.

Taboo: an action or word under strong social prohibition.

Vernacular: the common, everyday (spoken) language of a people or place.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Bauer, Laurie, and Peter Trudgill. Language Myths. London & New York: Penguin Books, 1998. [A collection of useful and easily understood articles, each dealing with a common myth about language structure, use and history. A good way to sample the linguists' perspective.]
  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1887-1949). Much of his work is very hard to approach, but a 1927 paper, “Literate and Illiterate Speech” (American Speech 2.432-39) is a clear, easily understandable illustration of usage differences among speakers of Menominee, an “unwritten” Algonkian language spoken in rural Wisconsin, that Bloomfield studied and described over a period of many years. The paper was reprinted in Hymes 1964.391-96.
  • Hymes, Dell, ed.  Language in Culture and Society (New York:) A still-useful anthology, 1964.
John G. Fought, now an independent scholar, was an Associate Professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and has also taught at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and at Pomona College. He has written on modern Mayan , Chorti (Mayan) Texts I, University of (Pennsylvania Press, 1972) and on the history of American linguistics Leonard Bloomfield: Assessments of Leading Linguists, (Routledge, 1999), and, with Dell Hymes, American Structuralism, (Mouton, 1981). He has studied and taught American regional and social dialectology for many years.

Back to Top

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York