Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Standard English (3).

Standard English (3). Today: Sociolinguistics. Although some linguists are fond of saying that a standard language is preferred not for any linguistic reason but merely for social reasons, the social factors that affect language users can’t readily be — and shouldn’t be — divorced from linguistics. That is one of the tenets underlying the field known as sociolinguistics. Social pressures are inextricably intertwined with language. And so what began as one of many 14th-century dialects has risen, by a series of historical events, to become the literary language of the English-speaking world. This dialect wasn’t inherently superior to the other dialects; it was the language used by the people with social and political influence. It became the medium of exchange in politics, diplomacy, law, medicine, technology, and other fields involving intellectual discipline. This rise coincided with literary cultivation and enhanced stability. Despite the tone that commentators have occasionally taken, encouraging people to use Standard English is not a matter of snobbery. It is a matter of (1) cultural cohesion, (2) continuity with a great literary tradition, and (3) equal opportunity. Learning it does not mean rejecting one’s origins; rather, it is (to some speakers) the equivalent of learning another language — becoming essentially bidialectal. “Its virtue,” as the writer and linguist Anthony Burgess put it, “lies in its neutrality, its lack of purely local associations, its transparency, its clarity, its suitability for intellectual discourses or dispassionate government pronouncements.” A Mouthful of Air 22 (1992).
Quotation of the Day: “Sociolinguists ought to speak with eloquent understanding; but too frequently they offer good examples of bad writing.” James Sledd, “Linguistic Relativism: The Divorce of Word from Work,” in Studies in English Linguistics 256, 257 (Sidney Greenbaum et al. eds., 1979).

1 thought on “Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Standard English (3).”

  1. When is custody not custody? When the government says so. I am always amused (and dismayed) when courts change the plain meaning of a word in order to get the result they want. For example, when credit for time served in pretrial custody in federally designated halfway houses was challenged by the prosecution, they decided being in federal custody was not custody for purposes of sentence calculation. Up is down, too.

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