Sometimes the choir is actually the toughest crowd to preach to. John McWhorter, as all actual linguists do, argues persuasively that much of what we call proper grammar is artificial, pettifogging nonsense. He also makes the case, which I have heard made before, that Black English is a dialect, like any other dialect of English, and is not substandard any more than Middle English was a substandard version of Old English. There are situations in which one would not use it, especially in writing. But that is true of all oral dialects of English, all of which are different from written forms, especially in formal situations.
I will run through bits of those arguments later, though others can do it better. At the moment, I am only noticing the irony, the curiosity, that a great deal of McWhorter’s prospective audience are those most likely to be reluctant to agree with him. Who reads about language, and usage? People who learned and mastered the rules in school and have continued to be attentive to the speech and writing of others. The people who are attuned to noticing a split infinitve are those most likely to be reading a book telling them that avoiding same is a ridiculous rule. It is those of us who take care to pronounce letters that others “sloppily” omit who would be most likely to pick up something by McWhorter, who confronts us with the fact that the written version of a language is not the “real” one and the oral forms degenerate – though that sentiment is common in all places where there is a written form. It is precisely those people, African-American or not, who would never say “aks” or “She my sister” even in casual speech, who are being given very solid reasoning that these forms are not any worse than dialect forms that are regional.
They are after all readers, most prone to regarding the written form as the standard. They might also resent being told that a skill they have put some effort into is less important than they were told.
A linguist’s audience on these matters is the set of readers most likely to disagree with him. That’s a tough choir. I was long part of it. When I first read about transformational grammar and Noam Chomsky in college, I can still recall the feeling that this was all a mere dodge, an elaborate attempt to avoid having to learn the rules. They just couldn’t hack it – weren’t smart enough or hadn’t been properly trained or had grown up in the wrong part of the country. Ebonics? Pah! Patronising nonsense.
But there just isn’t any way to logically sustain those points of view. The changes that have happened in languages around the world, throughout history, are the same sort of change that brought us Black English. The same forces that freeze written forms, sometimes for centuries until they are not recognisable without special training, or grant prestige to certain dialects, are the same sort of forces that caused us to impose the rules of Latin – a Real language, doncha know – on English for no good reason whatsoever*.
The written form is not the Real Language. And those of us who speak and write English, with its horrendous spelling, should be more aware of that than others. We dislike seeing oral English written on the page as it is spoken. It just looks wrong. But that is evidence that writing is the artificial form, not that the oral forms are wrong.
Rule of thumb: if you are a reasonably intelligent native speaker of English and are puzzled about a usage rule, it’s artificial. You may want to put in the effort to remember (or find) the rule, just as one monitors all communication for clarity, expressiveness, and beauty. “William and me went to the store” is correct in French, and there is no reason English might not increasingly move toward that in the future. Yet at present, it will jar many of your readers or hearers, interfering with your credibility and temporarily interrupting their ability to follow you. Use the rule, but know that its days are numbered. The supposed rules of agreement are already inconsistent in English, so we can’t fall back on certain forms being “more logical.” No language is logical, and it is even less so to apply rules of Sanskrit to Hindi, or Classical Arabic to Moroccan Arabic.
I would have preferred to tell you something else. I would have preferred to tell you that it’s all about declining standards, laziness, and the world going to hell in a handbasket. But it just ain’t so.
Next, we will speculate on where English, written and oral, might be going.
*Quai substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi, numerum et casus.