A Lady’s Guide to Linguistic Pedantry



Correct grammar, pronunciation, usage and sentence structure were drummed into my tiny head at the dinner table. My parents were most annoyed when I started drumming back.


When it comes to correct English, here is normally a simple split, nerds on one side, casual sexters on the other. But there is a rare, more extreme level of nerd – the linguistics student, who, surprisingly enough, sides with the slangers.


The social linguistic argument is simple and logical, it has changed to minds (but not the habits) of many nerds. It goes thus:


The purpose of language is to convey meaning to the intended audience. One might add that this should be done clearly and in an efficient way, but both of those conditions are in contention. Either way, if a phrase is understood by its intended audience it is, by definition, successful and therefore ‘correct’.


By this definition ‘sup’ and ‘how do you do’ are equally acceptable. In some subcultures, you could argue that ‘pacific’ and ‘mischievious’ are more acceptable than ‘specific’ and ‘mischievous’.


Yet we still cringe, well, I do.


Language is very closely connected with culture, even at the micro level. Only geeks from the 90s use ‘bogus’ as a swear word, only Eminem fans give the finger and three half fingers, only lab techs write ‘SPF C57B6J sentinel, B107/13’. Linguistic differences define us as members of our races, religions, cultures, subcultures and even occupations. To most young people, being accepted and gaining status within a group of immediate peers is the main concern. To most older people, being accepted and gaining status within large scale culture is more important. This is why teenagers love to spout new slang, while their grandparents bang on about how terrible they sound. The younger generation is defining itself specifically, with a large variety of different linguistic styles, to fit closely with immediate peers, while the older generation is becoming cosmopolitan in an attempt to be accepted by larger social circles.


Speaking with a specific accent or style defines you as a member of a particular group (snobs, bogans, chavs, gangtas, nerds, yuppies, Londoners, country bumpkins, etc). It can make you ‘one of them’ and therefore ‘not one of us’ and subjects you to all the listener’s opinions and prejudices about that group. On the other hand, a shared linguistic style brings you closer to your peers, increasing acceptance and toleration. The typical teenager and the average grandparent both have sensible motivations, the only real issue is defining each other as wrong (or stupid, or out of touch), and refusing to consider viewpoints expressed in styles other than their own.


So what do you do? Obviously, whatever the hell you like, but here’s my solution:

It is said (mostly by my father) that you should write like a gentleman and speak like a local. This is probably the best way to be accepted (and have your point considered) by the maximum number of people. Or, to put it another way, when addressing a mixed or undefined audience (a lecture theatre, radio interview or anything written, as it read by anyone in the future), it is generally best to speak in the standardized style as defined by dictionaries, English classes and grammar nazis. The maximum proportion of your audience will clearly understand you and be open to your message. Also, by displaying an understanding of the fine details of “correct” linguistic style, you are likely to be seen as intelligent and well educated, thus further supporting your message.


If, on the other hand, you are addressing a small, well defined group (friends at lunch, small children, metal heads on the train), you can increase your own acceptance and the group’s understanding by adapting your style to closer resemble that of your audience. People naturally do this, it is an evolutionary strategy to increase personal safety. You’ve probably noticed that you quickly pick up the accent, style and slang of your immediate social group, as do children, often to the dismay of their carers.


Should a lady speak strictly correctly all the time? I say no, not when it’s likely to have you ignored by your students, shunned by your co-workers and beaten up on public transport. But understanding ‘correct’ English is a wonderful skill to have, it implies intelligence and good breeding and will help you succeed in many areas. Remember, however, that the ability to adapt is equally important.


Thank you and goodnight,




As an aside, a linguistics student friend recently surveyed three generations of Australians on two areas: their understanding of correct English grammar and style, and the importance they place on correct grammar and style. The results were interesting and rather pleasing.

The ‘grandparents’ generation had a poor understanding of the subtleties and fine details of the English language (making many mistakes in the English aptitude test), but placed great importance on correct usage.

The ‘parents’ generation had a fairly good understanding of correct English, and felt that correct usage was important, but not extremely so.

The ‘students’ generation had excellent linguistic understanding, passing the test with flying colours, but felt that speaking in correct English had very little importance.


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