Ponder this sentence while I discourse on an unrelated topic, and we will come back to it: I ain’t gonna do nothing that will get me arrested.
While you contemplate that, I will tell you that this week while editing an article for a pharmacy research journal, I found the word “task” four times in one sentence, and the word didn’t always mean the same thing (as far as I could interpret it). Now granted, professional research articles are not supposed to sound like they were written by Shakespeare. Or by Shakespeare’s brother. Or his distant cousin Benny who doth lie about bootless with wine and wench.
But even among professionals who are not professional writers, pharmacists, let’s say, or civil engineers, or forest managers, some have a decent grasp of writing or else they work very hard at it. And some don’t. Of course I’ve seen worse, since I used to teach college writing, beyond which—in some instances—there is no worse. At the same time, I have seen 18-year-olds who not only wrote with elegance and grace, but also with clarity and interest.
And some professional writers…not so much. What I like about being an editor, as opposed to being a writing teacher, is that when I see errors, or clumsiness, or just plain dumb shit, I don’t need to figure out how to induce another person to improve it. I can just fix it.
As I was editing this week, I was thinking about the fact that things I do will eventually get printed, the journal will be distributed all over the country, and people will read it. So people from around the country could potentially notice something I’ve changed and consider it The Way You Are Supposed To Write.
From whence did I acquire this wondrous power? Most people believe there is such a thing as correct English. So who decides what that is? I don’t want to get long and complicated here with old stories about the King, who is dead anyway, but as recently as 50 years ago, it was largely people like me who decided, mostly writers, editors, and English teachers. Writers and especially editors could control what got printed, and English teachers could just stand right there in front of you and tell you that one way is wrong and another way is right.
So I’m a writer, I’m an editor at the moment, and I’ve been an English teacher. I’ve had and still have some of that influence, or even power. It’s not entirely arbitrary, however, that I have it. People like me have spent their lives paying attention to careful use of language. We’ve seen ugly and beautiful and noted what makes them that way. We’ve read clear text and confusing rambling, and we’ve sometimes analyzed how to make the muddy text clear. We’ve paid attention to the tools (grammar, punctuation, visual effects), so we know how to make it work.
Thus if I hear someone say “I ain’t gonna do nothing that will get me arrested”, do I consider this correct or incorrect? I know several things in this case: (1) the word “ain’t”—originally a contraction of am not—is widely considered to be nonstandard English, or even substandard or “bad” English, (2) because “ain’t” implies a negative, the word “nothing” adds a second negative, which standard English does not allow, and which many people are critical of, (3) although the spelling “gonna” reflects a common fast pronunciation of the phrase “going to”, using it in writing definitely indicates a casual colloquial sentence, not necessarily bad, but not formal either.
But I personally think the sentence is just fine, because it is best not to be arrested.
Maybe because I’m a writer and I love the richness and diversity of what a language can do, I’m generally tolerant of deviations, embroiderings, neologisms, and declarations of grammatical independence. Not always, but generally.
I said above that 50 years ago it was people like me who decide what is correct. Nowadays, we still try, but I wonder whether the ubiquity of…umm, alternative writing on the internet may shift that power to a wider range of people. Wot u think about that? i bet u the old fokes won’t like it LOL 🙂
But while you are on the internet helping to democratize our language, keep in mind that if you do get arrested, I ain’t gonna come down there and bail you out.