LawProse Lesson #327: Standard English and Nonconformity.

LawProse Lesson #327: Standard English and Nonconformity.

Standard English and Nonconformity.

Standards enforce conformity, and Standard Written English demands conformity with literary tradition. When it comes to style, even some brazen nonconformists—writers like David Foster Wallace—famously prized Standard Written English.

One way of enhancing Standard English (written or spoken) has been adults’ tendency to correct children of a certain age (preferably, say, over the age of eight) when they depart from standard forms, especially in speech. Inevitably, though, the language changes. For example, oblivious is no longer predominantly followed by the preposition of, and it no longer means forgetful. Our grandparents and great-grandparents failed at that one: today the usual phrase is oblivious to, and the normal sense is unaware. This kind of linguistic change is constant and perhaps even, as a result of modern technology, ever-accelerating.

Is it wrong to resist changes? The prevailing sentiment among literati has always been no: it’s a right—even an obligation—to oppose linguistic drift that one regards as retrograde, even if it ends up being a lost cause. You resist changes partly by example and partly by discussing usage as diplomatically and charmingly as possible.

True, not everyone is diplomatic and charming in this battle. And many on the receiving end of criticisms are fighting back. They like the newfangled way they talk, thank you very much, and they resent any suggestion that they change their ways. They’ve labeled linguistic fuddy-duds “NORMs” (= nonmobile, older, rural males). The so-called NORMs dislike vocal fry—the habit of completing a statement with a kind of guttural rumble. Some find it as distracting as “uptalk,” in which most sentences end on a high note (hence sounding like questions)—or the incessant use of so at the outset of spoken sentences. Here’s what one defender of vocal fry says in a new book: “If someone ever tries to make you—or anyone else—feel stupid for pushing your vocal folds together at the ends of sentences, saying sorry a lot, or another language feature they’ve decided they don’t like, remember: even if the NORMs don’t get you, linguists will. After all, the haters are probably just bitter that you’re changing the world in ways they can’t control or understand.”

That’s Amanda Montell, in her new book Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (2019). It’s consistently provocative, to say the least. She ardently defends the filler-word like. She seeks uninhibited “progress,” and she says, “my lifelong potty mouth and I are glad to be involved.”

So you see, linguistic battle lines are just as fraught and polarized as political battle lines. And oppositional labels are routinely devised to augment defiance.

If it was once possible to hope that all ambitious people would aspire to Standard English, that conformist ideal seems a distant memory.

But for lawyers, whose stock in trade is the written and spoken word . . . well, the thought is one for you to see through to its end. Bear in mind that in rhetoric (in the sense of well-chosen words in well-chosen places), irritating verbal distractions can thwart your cause.

If you’d like to test your command of Standard Written English and its nuances—as an aspirant, not a hater—download the app for Garner’s Modern English Usage and take the 30 usage quizzes. The answers are keyed to the text, which is based on big-data empiricism. Your answers will be retained on the app for only 24 hours, and then you can retest yourself. If you want a sure knowledge of the 300 most common problems in word usage, there’s no better way to obtain it.

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