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How to Study Linguistics pp 219–226 Cite as

How to Write a Linguistics Essay

  • Geoffrey Finch  

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Part of the book series: Palgrave Study Guides:Literature

For most of us this is where the crunch really comes. Reading about the subject is OK but having to write something intelligible about it is another matter. All that terminology, those diagrams! Well it isn’t so difficult provided you bear in mind a few basic rules. It’s the purpose of this chapter to say what these are.

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© 2003 Geoffrey Finch

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Finch, G. (2003). How to Write a Linguistics Essay. In: How to Study Linguistics. Palgrave Study Guides:Literature. Palgrave, London.

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How To Write A Linguistics Essay

Table of Contents

Content of this article

  • Outline sample
  • How to start a linguistics essay
  • How to write body paragraphs for a linguistics essay
  • How to conclude a linguistics essay
  • How to format a linguistics essay

Language is important and impacts as well as interacts with the world on a daily basis. Different sections and issues of language make for interesting essay topics , for example, how language forms, the meaning of language, and language content. While these examples might seem straightforward and fairly easy when to read, developing a linguistic essay from them can be a challenge. Contrary to what many students might think, linguistic essays have largely taken after scientific articles and not literary theory essays. When writing linguistic papers, it is hence important to be direct, simple, clear, and concise. Students must also avoid overstatements, unnecessary qualifiers, digressions, and verbiage in their essays. Objectivity should be maintained throughout the essay, and personal opinions or experiences must be left out unless otherwise stated in the instructions. A complete linguistic essay must demonstrate or show a capacity for methodical, and clear thinking.

Linguistic essays are written for different purposes, but the main reason is to determine whether students are conversant with the basic concepts, debates, and research interests within the larger subject of linguistics. Teachers often seek to know their student`s capacity to deliver when given different scenarios and questions within linguistics. These help to determine the effectiveness of the teacher’s delivery methods as well as the students’ interest in a particular subject. An instructor can also be interested in determining how best students can incorporate or adhere to the writing standards needed in linguistic papers. As stated earlier, linguistic papers are taken after scientific papers and are hence expected to follow certain formats and include some sections that are often left out in other essays.

Linguistics Essay Structure

As with any scientific paper, three sections are included in a paper, and they include:

  • the introduction,
  • and the conclusion.

While the term main body is often included in structures, it should not appear as a title in an essay. However, students should only include sections or points that are in line with their main argument , point, or perspective. A linguistics essay structure is hence essay but needs to be strictly adhered to.

When called upon to write an essay , it is always advisable, to begin with a draft before developing the final copy for submission or presentation. A linguistic essay draft provides one with the opportunity to consider many angles and perspectives and also gifts writers with the space of making some mistakes and correcting them as well. It will indeed take more time to prepare a draft and then prepare the final copy, but it saves students from getting lower grades as well as doing revisions and corrections later once the instructor detects some obvious mistakes.

An outline also comes in handy and on many occasions guides and helps students to be consistent with their argumentation. As already stated, an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion make up the structure of a linguistic essay, but when developing a linguistic essay outline , the main body section is often replaced by the points or supporting arguments.

Below is an example of an outline for a linguistic essay given that the essay topic is:

Developmental Language Disorders


The connection between language and reading disabilities:

  • Correlation between language and reading;
  • Language, reading, and poor reading comprehension;
  • Common literacy outcomes for people with language impairments – the focus is on children;
  • Speech perception in children.

Conclusion and Recommendations

How to write an introduction for a linguistic essay

An introduction serves the purpose of revealing the topic or subject that the student has been asked to write about. A linguistic essay introduction is supposed to explain the main topic or subject and clearly specify the writer’s goal. Before starting the essay, it is important first to narrow down the scope and approach it from an angle that is specific. Readers need to be taken through the topic, the structure of the essay as well as the steps that need to be taken to reach the essay’s ultimate goal.

How to write body paragraphs for a linguistic essay

As already stated, the main body mainly has supporting arguments and points which help to explain the writer’s perspective. In this section, thorough research comes in handy. Linguistics essays rely heavily on research, and it is advisable to make use of genuine sources to enhance the essay’s credibility. The points or arguments need to stand out and support the author’s main argument exhaustively.

How to write a conclusion for a linguistic essay

A linguistics essay conclusion is not challenging and mainly references the introduction. The writer’s main goal must be restated. A summary of the main points or the findings of the research must also be provided. The writer can also include a section specifying some of the things that can be done to improve research on the topic in the future.

How to format a linguistic essay

The use of examples is indeed essential when trying to make a point or when giving real situations which directly relate to the topic under review. Examples help to make something easier to understand and provide realistic instances of what the writer is handling. It is hence vital to use them because they also help to make the explanations easier and thus aid the readers to understand the writer’s point of view.

Research is vital to being a good linguistics essay writer. It is important to find other sources that will help one develop their main point and reference or cite them accordingly. Being scientific simply means writers need to follow APA or MLA standards or any other standards as specified by the instructor. In-text citations must be included, especially when the point included is not original or is borrowed from another article. Below are two examples to help differentiate between APA and MLA in-text citations:

According to Kiragu (2016), language can be defined as “a system that involves words as well as the symbols used by people and other animals to communicate.”

As depicted in the above example, while putting in-text citations using the APA format students are expected to use the author’s surname and year only.

According to Kiragu (16), language can be defined as “a system that involves words as well as the symbols used by people and other animals to communicate.”

Unlike the APA format where writers are asked to include the year, in MLA students are expected to include the page number from whence they got the definition or any other information.

Once all the sources have been accurately cited, it is important to include them in a bibliography at the end of the essay. Each formatting standard has its rules and writers need to familiarize themselves with each of them to avoid the possibility of using two in one document.

Finalizing Essay

Revising an essay is also vital to ensuring that an essay adheres to the formatting rules of the referencing style that the writer chose. It also gifts students with the opportunity of correcting some errors such as grammatical, punctuation, and vocabulary errors. In some instances, writers drift from their main argument, and it is only through revising an essay that such mistakes can be detected and avoided. Clarity and objectivity are indeed important to developing an essay that is specific and narrow in scope. The above can only be enhanced when revising an essay.

Plagiarism is often discouraged by instructors, but only a few students can adhere to this rule. Citations must be included, especially when a writer used other people’s work to develop their own. The style used to include citations is dependent on the instructions given, but the common ones include APA and MLA.

how to write an essay on linguistics

Guide to Writing Linguistics Papers

I. so what are these papers all about anyway, ii. ok, how do i organize this thing, iii. but what do i do with my example sentences and tables, iv. if these are my own arguments, what do i need to cite, and how, v. what if my professor doesn't like how i did it.

Linguistics papers offer analyses of data. You must defend a hypothesis accounting for a set of data, uncover the assumptions of the hypothesis, and test its predictions against data. Linguistics faculty members agree that the student's analysis is more important in a paper than the analyses of others (unless, of course, you are asked to critique others' analyses). Arguments should come "from the student's head" (Napoli).

Papers should be concise, but provide sufficient explanations of your points. Linguistics papers are analogous to lab reports for chemistry or papers for mathematics and so should read more like scientific writing than humanities writing. Clear expression of ideas, application of proper technical terms, and a clear, well-developed argument are necessary. Pay attention to the details of analyses and theory from class and readings, be thorough, and present your data clearly! Your job is to convince the reader that your well-developed analysis is the best one.

Linguistics papers follow an outline form with numbered (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc) and titled sections (and subsections when necessary). For answers to all of your nitpicky organizational questions, consult the Style Sheet of Linguistics Inquiry . A general overview:

1.0 Introduction : Is very brief, it summarizes the information in your paper.

  • Introduce the data, question/problem, hypothesis that you will discuss
  • Tell why the problem is interesting (theoretically/empirically)
  • Given an overview of the organization of your paper

2.0 Survey of Data

  • Present your data and previous analyses or theories related to your hypothesis

3.0/4.0 Analysis

  • Discuss problems with prior analyses
  • Point out questions left unanswered
  • Present you proposed analysis with thorough explanation

5.0 Conclusion : Is very brief; can be almost like QED

  • Summarize your claim (should be reflective of your introduction)
  • Give theoretical implications of our analysis (optional)
  • Raise questions not answered by your analysis, or allude to questions you've raised for further research (optional)

III. But what do I do with my example sentences and tables?

Rule of thumb for example sentences: Any examples referred to in your text must be indented and numbered sequentially (as they appear). They should be set apart by a single lne above and below. For example:

The verb hung in (3) is transitive; in (4), hung is intransitive          (3) John hung the painting on the wall.          (4) The painting hung on the wall.

An example that is used in passing in your text does not have to be set apart or numbered, unless it is referred to again later in the text. What's with the italics? When a letter, word, phrase, or sentence is used as a linguistic example or subject of discussion (like hung above), it should appear in italics to differentiate it from your text. Tables and figures? They are usefulfor presenting data clearly. When you use them, number them separately from the example sentences. Want the whole story? See the Style Sheet of Linguistic Inquiry for every detail and circumstance you could imagine.

If your topic has been the subject of other papers, you should cite those works in your paper (see recommendations for introduction content above). Citations are usually in-text with the last name of the author and the page number, as well as the year (if the author has more than one work). If the author's name is part of the sentence, it is not put in parentheses; if it is not part of the sentence, it is put in parentheses. Check out these examples (courtesy of Donna Jo Napoli):

"Assume the analysis of clitic doubling in Aissen (1990)." OR "Verbs come second in the independent clause (Hoeksema,p.23)."

The citations refer to a Bibliography (Works Cited) section that should appear at the end of your paper. Format the entries according to MLA rules or see that all-knowing Style Sheet of Linguistic Inquiry . You should only include works in your Bibliography that were directly referenced or mention in your text.

Footnotes (or endnotes) are not used for citing other works, but for giving tangential comments on your text.

V. What if my Professor doesn't like how I did it?

Linguistics faculty members at Swarthmore have different recommendations and opinions about use of first person, length/content of conclusion/ MLA vs. Style Sheet for bibliographies, endnotes vs. footnotes, and probably other issues. If you're unsure, check with your professor!

Harrison, K. David, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics. Email to author. 31 October 2001. Napoli, Donna Jo, Professor and Chair, Department of Linguistics. Email to author. 23 October 2001. Raimy, Eric, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics. Email to author. 6 November 2001. Swingle, Kari, Instructor of Linguistics. Email to author. 4 November 2001 The MIT Press: Linguistic Inquiry . . Viewed 7 November 2001

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Home — Essay Samples — Science — Language and Linguistics — Linguistics

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Essays on Linguistics

Writing an essay on Linguistics is important for several reasons. Firstly, it allows the writer to demonstrate their understanding of language and its structure, which is a crucial aspect of communication. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to explore various theories and concepts within Linguistics, helping to deepen one's knowledge of the subject. Finally, writing an essay on Linguistics can also contribute to the overall body of knowledge within the field, as it allows for the dissemination of new ideas and research findings.

When writing an essay on Linguistics, it is important to consider the following tips:

  • Define your topic: Clearly define the specific aspect of Linguistics that you will be addressing in your essay. This will help you to focus your research and ensure that your essay remains coherent and well-structured.
  • Conduct thorough research: Take the time to gather a wide range of sources, including academic papers, books, and scholarly articles. This will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the topic and enable you to present a well-informed argument.
  • Organize your thoughts: Before you start writing, create an outline that outlines the main points and arguments that you will be making in your essay. This will help you to stay focused and ensure that your essay flows logically.
  • Support your arguments: Use evidence and examples to support your arguments. This could include citing research studies, linguistic data, or real-life examples of language use.
  • Edit and revise: Once you have completed your first draft, take the time to edit and revise your essay. Check for grammar and spelling errors, and ensure that your argument is clear and well-supported.

What Makes a Good Linguistics essay topic

When it comes to choosing a topic for a linguistics essay, it's important to consider a few key factors. Firstly, brainstorming is essential. Think about your interests, current issues in the field of linguistics, and any recent research that has caught your attention. Consider the level of complexity you want to tackle and the availability of credible sources for your chosen topic. Additionally, a good linguistics essay topic should be relevant, thought-provoking, and have the potential to contribute to the existing body of knowledge in the field.

Best Linguistics Essay Topics

  • The impact of technology on language evolution
  • The role of cultural and societal influences on language development
  • The linguistic challenges and opportunities of multilingualism
  • The relationship between language and cognitive processes
  • The future of endangered languages in a globalized world
  • The linguistic implications of artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • The influence of gender on language use and perception
  • The linguistic analysis of political discourse and rhetoric
  • The intersection of language and identity in immigrant communities
  • The linguistic representation of emotions and feelings
  • The role of language in shaping individual and collective memory
  • The linguistic strategies for persuasion and manipulation in advertising
  • The impact of linguistic diversity on educational practices
  • The linguistic analysis of online communication and social media
  • The language of humor and its cross-cultural variations
  • The linguistic patterns in the speech of individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders
  • The linguistic implications of code-switching and language mixing
  • The role of language in the construction of power dynamics and social hierarchies
  • The linguistic analysis of nonverbal communication and body language
  • The linguistic representation of time and space in different cultures

Linguistics Essay Topics Prompts

  • Imagine a world without language. How would human communication and interaction be affected?
  • Explore the linguistic challenges and opportunities of creating a universal language.
  • Create a linguistic analysis of a popular song or piece of literature.
  • Investigate the linguistic strategies used in political speeches to evoke specific emotions and reactions.
  • Consider the linguistic implications of the growing trend of voice-activated technology and virtual assistants.

By considering these prompts and unique topics, you can craft a compelling and thought-provoking linguistics essay that stands out from the crowd.

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Broad generalizations about “people today” are a familiar feature of first-year student writing. How Students Write brings a fresh perspective to this perennial observation, using corpus linguistics techniques. This study analyzes sentence-level patterns in student writing to develop an understanding of how students present evidence, draw connections between ideas, relate to their readers, and, ultimately, learn to construct knowledge in their writing. 

Drawing on both first-year and upper-level student writing, the book examines the discourse of students at different points in their education. It also distinguishes between argumentative and analytic essays to explore the way school genres and assignments shape students’ choices. 

In focusing on sentence-level features such as hedges (“perhaps”) and boosters (“definitely”), this study shows how such rhetorical choices work together to open or close opportunities for thoughtful exchanges of ideas. Attention to these features can help instructors foster civil discourse, design effective assignments, and expose and question norms of higher education.

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26 Style and Linguistic Diversity

Here are a few things to look for as you revise for academic style:

  • Academic (formal) tone—no “you” or “one” because these pronouns are broad and vague (but “I/we” are fine)​
  • Appropriate language​
  • Clichés and colloquial language​
  • Sentence variety (simple, compound, complex)​
  • Author voice ​
  • Active vs. passive construction​ I wrote the paper. YES!​ The paper was written by me. NO!​

These are excellent suggestions, but certain phrases such as “appropriate” vs. “colloquial” language raise the question of what’s suitable for an academic audience.

These expectations are often interpreted to mean that students should practice “standard American English.” All other non-standard dialects, such as Black English or certain types of Southern slang, are viewed as inappropriate because they’re “lesser than” the standard.

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce students to a more nuanced and contextually-informed conversation about style, especially as it relates to standard English (also called standard American English, abbreviated SAE). Writing for an academic audience does often mean students will sound more formal and less like everyday speech, but it’s a mistake to view the latter, non-standard forms of writing and speech as lesser than academic communication.

Dash that Oxford Comma! Prestige and Stigma in Academic Writing

by Christie Bogle

The Comma Comma

Once upon a time, way back in the third grade, Mrs. MaGee told me never to put a comma before the “and” in my lists. She said that the “and” means the same thing as a comma.

And so I never did. I wrote “balls, bats and mitts.”

Years later, another teacher told me that I should  always  put a comma before the “and” in my lists because it clarifies that the last two items in my list are not a set. He said to write “Amal, Mike, Jose, and Lin.”

Logic told me that the third-grade teacher was right because, if the last two in the list were a set, the “and” would have come sooner as “balls and bats and mitts” or “Amal, Mike, and Jose and Lin.” But that is also just odd. What if I really did mean to have two sets? Now I felt like I had to write “Balls. Also, bats and mitts.” It felt like juggling. If this is confusing, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made my point. These rigid rules felt so awkward! Things I can say effortlessly outloud are, all of a sudden, impossible on paper. Who wrote these rules?

That’s actually a valid question. Who did write them? Novices to the study of language sometimes imagine that language started back in a day when there were pure versions of all the world languages that younger and lazier speakers continue to corrupt, generation after generation. They imagine a perfect book of grammar that we should all be able to reference. Nothing about that scenario is actually true.

History of English Grammar

So, why and how did we get all those rules? Way back around the 1700s, we finally started to get some books written about the structure of language, specifically for teaching. These, even then, were vastly different from the work being done by linguists in the field who were interested in marking language as it is, not how they thought it should be. As time went on, people introduced writing rules that originated in other languages, like Latin, and imposed them on English. These misapplications have followed us into modern times. Many of the guidebooks for writing are filled with these exceptions to the natural ways that English once worked. They include, surprisingly, the rule against double negatives (“we don’t need no stinking badges!”) and other standard prohibitions against language that was quite normal long ago (and still is in non-standard varieties of English).

Some more of those gems include “never say ‘I’ in an essay,” “don’t use passive voice,” and “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” We can sprinkle in the Latin rule, “don’t split infinitives” (think  Star Trek ‘s “to boldly go”) and unnecessary restrictions like “adverbs go after the verb, not before.” These rules have interesting histories but the history doesn’t necessarily support their persistence. In fact, most of them can be dismissed as simple preferences of some dead white guy from centuries ago. They don’t obey any rule of logic, though some obey a system from a different language that has no application in English.

A great example is the double negative. In the 1700s the location of the royalty and their dialects determined what was “correct.” The south of England used double negatives but the north of England (where royalty lived) did not use them. Something so simple as location dictated what went into the books. Then in 1762, Robert Lowth wrote  Short Introduction to English Grammar  and relegated the southern usage to “uncultivated speech” instead of what it really is, which is an emphasis on the negative point being made. The American usage that developed from before Lowth’s writing is retained today in many dialects, but famously so in Southern varieties and African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

“Grammars,” Not Grammar

What is happening here? Am I arguing that grammar rules are okay to break sometimes? I am taking up an argument that seems to be at an academic impasse. Linguists believe that there is more than one grammar. We say “grammars.” Stephen Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, offers his take on this phenomenon in an article for  The Guardian  called “Stephen Pinker: 10 ‘Grammar Rules’ It’s Okay to Break Sometimes.” He characterizes the debate between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians like this:

Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.

His point is that some think that every rule of grammar is worth preserving lest the language devolves out of existence. Others believe that the actual use of the language (any language) and the natural changes that occur are a good thing. Sometimes, as is the case with the double negative, before the rule against it was made, people used “incorrect” phrases all the time. So, the argument about preserving rules and allowing change is kind of mixed up. Pinker describes the conflict experts have, but it’s even more complicated by the history.

Still, I reference Pinker because he is a cognitive psychologist that studies both linguistics and composition. Even more importantly, he is also a best-selling author of nonfiction. Pinker has made boring and dry topics like linguistics and neuroscience feel easy, even to the average reader. That’s a kind of magic that I want to bottle and sell. So, I look to him on matters of writing. Pinker and I agree that when it comes to grammar, it should be addressed with the goal of being understood, not of being “right.”

Navigating the rules of grammar is not just hard for those that speak in “dialects” (or different grammars) of English. It is hard even for those who grew up in a middle-class culture speaking a relatively standard form called Standard American English (SAE). Those born into families and communities speaking SAE struggle with the rules like these:

  • What do I do with commas and semicolons?
  • Do I use who or whom?
  • Which word: there, they’re or their; too, two or to?

And so forth.

Even your professors make common speech errors. Try my favorite test. See how many times members of college faculty say “there’s” when they should have said “there are.” No one speaks like a textbook.

One of my favorite debates, because it is so utterly pointless, is of the Oxford comma. This phenomenon is the one I opened with. Do you always or never put a comma before the “and” in the list? The Oxford comma is the one that says “yes, always.” I was taught “no, never.” So, who wins?

John McWhorter pleads a case that I buy. He says neither side wins. In his article “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” he argues that “to treat the failure to use the Oxford comma as a mark of mental messiness is a handy way to look down on what will perhaps always be a majority of people attempting to write English.” And that is a key argument for me. Much of what we do when looking down our nose at particular errors is to demonstrate disdain for our differences on the page. In fact, for the rest of this document, let’s not call them “errors.” Let’s call them “varieties of speech/writing.”

Stigma and Prestige

As frustrating or embarrassing it is to be called to the carpet for your variety of speech, these grammar scuffles are mere annoyances when they occur between English speakers of the same general class, race, and economic status. However, when we approach minority English language speakers and English language learners, we pass into a new territory that borders on classism and racism.

To understand this, you must understand the terms  stigma  and  prestige . These terms apply to a number of sociological situations. Prestige is, very simply, what we grant power and privilege to. Remember the history of the double negative from the 1700s? The book taught that single negation is a mark of  prestige .

On the other hand, stigmatized varieties of English are those that people try to train you out of using. If you were raised in the Appalachian region of America, you may have some varieties of speech that other people dislike and hope you will lose. Things like “y’all” and “a-” prefixes on “a huntin’ and a fishin’” are discouraged; some think it means the speaker is uneducated. By being negated, double negatives became  stigmatized .

This distinction is “classist” because it assumes characteristics and abilities based on a person’s variety of speech. It may sound strange, but speech is not a mark of intellect or ability. One famous example is of Eudora Welty, a renown Appalachian author. A story is told that during her stay in a college dormitory she was passed over by the headmistress for opportunities to have tickets to plays and cultured events. When she confronted the headmistress about the oversight, she explained that she had doubted Welty’s interest in the theater because of her accent. Of course, now, Welty is an honored and prestigious author. Her variety of speech did not affect her ability to produce effective writing that communicates to her audience.

Some varieties of English are stigmatized because they represent racial minority speech patterns, even though they are legitimately home-grown American English. How many of us can easily hear and understand what is culturally Black English, Spanglish, or Chicano English, but know that those varieties won’t go into your next essay for History 1700?

Students learning English, or even just Standard  American  English, will vary in their ability to represent prestigious language patterns, even though what they write or say is generally understood. For example, people from India may have grown up speaking a different variety of English. The same is true for some people from Hong Kong when it was a British holding. British English with a Chinese accent was their standard, and they struggle to be understood in America.

So, for multilingual and/or multivariety speakers, one challenge of writing is the expectation that they will sound as narrowly experienced in language as monolingual speakers. This is what Lippi-Green called  standard language ideology . It’s the practice of prestige and stigma. It is a rather bizarre sort of prestige to value evidence of less experience, but that’s exactly what unaccented language is. A middle- to upper-class white American who travels nowhere and learns nothing of consequence can still sound perfectly prestigious merely by speaking their natural English variety. We actually prefer (or privilege) the appearance of ignorance.

There are a rare few that can perfectly compartmentalize languages. Linguistic geniuses (I use that term loosely) exist—those who can sound perfectly natural in several varieties or languages. It is an ability that only the teensiest percentage of people with just the right exposure, talent, age, and experience will ever achieve. The rest of us can increase our range of speech and writing contexts, but our own idiosyncrasies will always exist, and we will be (unnecessarily) embarrassed by them.

What Teaching Experts Know

Teaching professionals continue to debate how to teach in a way that combats linguistic stigma and shifts toward preferring linguistic diversity. From the CCCC’s Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) circa 1974, we read:

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.

So, since before many of your teachers were born, an international body of composition instructors has acknowledged that students have a right to their own language. Ever since then, the struggle to maintain a standard and find ways to work with differences have played out in the profession. Today, we have experts in the field that suggest utilizing “vernacular speech” (that’s your everyday speech) to improve the quality of writing, to a point. Peter Elbow writes in his book  Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing  about the ways that we can utilize spoken, everyday language as a way of improving the readability of text and ease the writing process.

Steven Pinker (you know—the one whose writing skill we should bottle and sell), like Peter Elbow, believes a more conversational tone in writing can improve its quality. He says that there are ways of scientifically assessing clarity and ease for readers. For example, this type of research takes on the debate of whether or not a typist should place one or two spaces after periods. It may seem trivial, but it’s a debate that has lasted since word processors were programmed to intelligently space punctuation. Researchers strapped people down in front of a computer screen and measured eye movement while reading to settle the debate. Much to my surprise, it turns out that two spaces are easier to read than one (Johnson).

What You, the Student, Should Know

I don’t know if I would always go so far as to do scientific experimentation on readers in order to make writing decisions, but choosing rules that make things easier feels like a really good idea, doesn’t it? The New SRTOL document authors argue, “it is one thing to help a student achieve proficiency in a written dialect and another thing to punish him for using variant expressions of that dialect.” So, in modern times, teachers want you to recognize and utilize a standard in writing without punishing your speech. You want to learn how to do the same with yourself and others.

However useful it is to accept variations in classroom English, there are, in fact, varieties of English that are native to the United States (not spoken anywhere else) that are not so easy to understand. Some examples are Louisiana’s Cajun creole and Hawai’ian Pidgin creole. Theorists that give nods of approval to teaching within varieties they understand may not be addressing a large enough group of English varieties. If we are suggesting a student use their native language ways to improve readability, sometimes the student’s writing will be unintelligible to the teacher and peers. It’s a whole different job to have everyone learn new languages in your composition class.

I assume that when CCCCs composed these sentences, “Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity…We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language,” they were being sincere, but it might be a stretch. Your teachers are not experts on every variety of English or the many creoles. Neither are you. There is still a way to manage the goals we have.

The updated version of the  Students’ Right to Their Own Language  makes a request of teachers when they say, “Since English teachers have been in large part responsible for the narrow attitudes of today’s employers, changing attitudes toward dialect variations does not seem an unreasonable goal, for today’s students will be tomorrow’s employers.” English faculty have continued to teach SAE (also called Educated American English or EAE) in one part because it’s what  the rest of the country  thinks that educated writers should use for speech and writing. So, even though teachers accept that the standard is a myth, we find the standard useful and the prestige/stigma problem lingers because we continue to use it. This is where you—the students—can help. Let’s revisit the value that standard language has and the work it does.

One of the undeniable benefits of a standard is that it is a  lingua franca.  This term roughly means “the language everyone shares.” With so many variations of English, it is just clearer to write in one variety than to learn them all. This different idea of a standard is about ease and convenience, not prestige. Teaching within one standard is a system-wide rhetorical choice to be understood by the largest audience possible. Ignoring what that  should be  and focusing on what that  is  seems like a better way of determining what we call the standard. So, most of us aim for a sort of amalgam of language that is acceptable to most people without sticking rigidly to arbitrary rules.

Lose the ‘Tude

What you, the students, probably want to know is how to write. The more important point that I hope you will walk away with is this: STROL says, “The  attitudes  that [you] develop in the English class will often be the criteria [you] use for choosing [your] own employees,” (emphasis mine). So, what you learn about writing in English class follows you as you make choices and impacts your options in the economy, but so do your attitudes about language and people. Spencer Kimball is often credited with this admonition, “Love people, not things; use things, not people.” I would apply a similar sentiment to language.

  • Don’t only use language with people you understand.
  • Use language to understand people.

As a student, you expect to leave school with more skills and greater flexibility. In that spirit, seeking diversity in your language education makes sense. As you become our future employers and employees, you will inherit the opportunity to reject stigma toward linguistic diversity.

You can do so by accepting these simple facts (adapted from Rosina Lippi-Green’s “Linguistic Facts of Life”):

  • Language is complex and diverse.
  • Language is not a moral marker.
  • Language is not an intellectual marker.
  • Language serves to communicate between people.
  • Language changes.

By embracing these facts, you can feel less shame or stigma in your own language and others’. If you accept language differences as natural, you might choose to expose yourself to and understand more languages and varieties. You will write aiming to be understood by a majority of readers for convenience, not for fear of judgment.

So, fine, Oxford Comma when you wanna—but dash linguistic stigma.

AAVE – Why Do People Say “AX” Instead of “ASK”?

Spanglish is a Language Too! | Alondra Posada

 Works Cited

Conference on College Composition and Communication. Students’ Right to Their Own Language. .

Elbow, Peter.  Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.  Oxford Press, 2012.

Johnson RL, et al. “Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading.”  Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.  2018 .  .

Lippi-Green, Rosina. “Chapter 1: Linguistic Facts of Life.” 1997.  English with an Accent.

McWhorter, John. “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” CNN. March 19, 2017.

Pinker, Stephen. “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s okay to break sometimes.”  The Guardian.  August 15, 2014.

—. “African American English Is Not Improper English.” YouTube Channel, General Turner. Sep 22, 2015.

—. “On Standard English and Myths.” YouTube Channel, Grammar Revolution Movie. Nov 4, 2014.

—. “Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker.” YouTube Channel, The Royal Institution. Oct 28, 2015.

—. as cited in Radio Boston. September 30, 2014.

Style and Linguistic Diversity Copyright © 2020 by Liza Long; Amy Minervini; and Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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