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Section6.4Writing and Correctness

Languages are constantly evolving to suit the distinct locations, speakers or circumstances in which they are spoken and written. Despite the dynamic nature of language, countries—including the United States—often develop “standard” forms of their languages that are taught in schools and used for professional and legal communication and that are often treated as “natural” or “correct.”

Standard American English

In the United States, our “standard” language is called Standard American English (SAE) or Mainstream American English (MAE). SAE exists primarily as a written form of English and includes the set of historically and culturally venerated rules that regulate English grammar, syntax, pronunciation, and spelling. Of course, the notion that SAE is “standard” is contested: On the one hand, because language changes constantly, there is no one moment in time when all users of SAE can agree completely on what the standard is; on the other, SAE is not truly “American” in that it is not the language of all Americans and has often been used to normalize white, middle- and upper-class language systems and to denigrate language systems that differ from them (and that hence, become “non-standard” and “improper”). In this sense, SAE has been placed at the top of a linguistic hierarchy, leaving other kinds of English open to stigmatization.

In addition to Standard American English, other varieties of American English include African-American English (AAE) (also called African-American Language, or AAL), Chicano English (also called Mexican American English), Cajun English, Hawaiian Pidgin (also called Hawaiian Pidgin English and Hawaiian Creole English), and Southern White American English. These varieties of English not only have some different vocabulary than SAE but also—and more importantly—have some different grammatical rules than SAE. American Sign Language (ASL), too, has a different grammatical structure than written SAE.

While there are many varieties of English in the United States, SAE and its speakers are treated with special privilege. Fluency in spoken SAE does not necessarily mean facility in writing the standardized norms of SAE; however, individuals who are raised speaking SAE come to college with an advantage over those who do not (or who speak it as a second dialect). SAE grammar may come more easily to speakers of SAE than to speakers of nonstandard varieties of English (think of how hard it is to learn a different word order in a foreign language).

Different varieties of English may also be associated with different rhetorical conventions. For instance, in college we are often encouraged to use the “topic-centered” discourse associated with SAE, in which one point logically and explicitly leads to a single following point. However, different discourse styles are associated with other varieties of English. For example, AAE is characterized by a “topic-associating” discourse in which various related topics are combined to make an implicit point. Readers who are used to “topic-centered” discourse may see “topic-associating” discourse styles as haphazard or unorganized because these readers fail to grasp the implicit meaning conveyed by the associated topics.

There are many correct and valid ways to write, tell stories, and make arguments in English, and being versatile and able to communicate effectively in multiple contexts is an asset. While this handbook focuses on the conventions of written SAE, that does not mean that other language conventions are incorrect. Writing with awareness means being aware of the limitations of any one set of written conventions and respecting the validity of other conventions.