The sticker on my laptop reading “I am silently correcting your grammar” might make me chuckle, but it is not, in fact, true. As an editor, people sometimes send me screenshots of misspellings and grammatical errors that they found funny. Again, I may chuckle, but before I declare that writing “wrong,” I must first make sure the author was intending to write in standard American English, sometimes known as General American (GA).
Isn’t All English Pretty Much the Same?
Most definitely not. The easiest example of this is British English. While English is the underlying language, British and American English have many differences in their spellings and even some grammatical constructs. In British English, it’s customary to place commas and periods outside quotation marks, while in American English, we always place them inside the quotation marks. Same with Canadians, who seem to love adding extra Us and Ls to their English words.
But Wait, There’s More
Most English speakers have some understanding that British English, American English, Canadian English, and even South African English all exist and have some differences. But you may be surprised by the many other English-based languages and dialects that exist and are in use today. Appalachian English, Philadelphia English, Yiddish English, African American English… the list goes on.
Now, you may be thinking: “But are these really languages?” And that’s a great question. Many of them are considered dialects of English. Others are truly languages unto themselves. For example, Bislama (an official language of Vanuatu) operates using 95% English-based vocabulary but with the grammar and structure of Oceanic languages. A writer familiar with only the words and grammar of General American may see sentences from these English speakers and automatically assume it’s wrong. This is particularly true for AAVE.
African American Vernacular English
The origins of AAVE are somewhat debated. Although it clearly developed in the Southern United States during the times of slavery, how it evolved in the first place is lost due to the general destruction and oppression of Black history. Unfortunately, this opens the argument as to whether AAVE is a language or a dialect.
Some linguists believe it developed as an English-based creole language that has since dropped the majority of its creole words. Others believe it started as a dialect of British or American English. Either way, there’s no debate that this system has a very real and very strict set of constructs and rules that writers and speakers of AAVE must follow. And if it weren’t for the stigmatization of AAVE, we might actually have learned the rules for it.
But since we don’t know the rules, most people would see this sentence –> Do you remember what you was doing when you seen this on the television? <– and assume it is incorrect. However, this is perfectly constructed by the rules of African American Vernacular English. AAVE is not “bad” English. It is simply a different form of English like the ones we just discussed.
However, historical backlash against AAVE has been unlike the response to any other dialect or English language variation. You may know AAVE by the slang ebonics, a term made famous in 1996 when a California school board approved the use of AAVE in the classroom.
The idea was that children who speak AAVE at home could use their dialect in school as a transitional tool to help them progress academically. This plan did not go well. The US Senate got involved and AAVE was forever stigmatized as “incorrect” English.
This is just another example of how we delegitimize aspects of Black culture as incorrect or substandard behavior. Linguistically, this is a completely unfair assessment. I mean, come on, we accept Klingon and Elvish as full languages, but we can’t accept AAVE?
Context Is Everything
Even as a trained and staunch grammarian of American English, I resist the urge to immediately correct others before I know the context and intent of the author. Just because something looks “wrong” by the standards of grammar we are familiar with, that does not mean it is, in fact, incorrect. It may just mean that our learned biases have prevented us from understanding there are rules other than the ones we learned in grade school.
So, the next time you go to correct someone’s grammar, stop and ask yourself “Is this written in standard American English?” We can all do better to avoid the assumption that something we are unfamiliar with is wrong. Instead, let’s open ourselves up as writers and editors to learn everything we can about the beauty and diversity of language and grammar. We all must remember this before we begin judging, critiquing, or editing anyone else’s work.
Jeanette the Writer is an editor, coach, and freelance writer who wants to help others demolish their editing fears and finish their manuscript. As a former scuba instructor turned entrepreneur, Jeanette knows about putting in the hard work to pursue your passions. She has worked with authors, speakers, coaches, and entrepreneurs—empowering them with the right mindset, knowledge, and tools to help them tackle their editing goals. You can learn more about Jeanette by visiting JeanetteTheWriter.com.