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Sound Writing

Subsection 6.3.1 Standard American English

Standard American English (SAE) (also called Academic English, or AE; Mainstream American English, or MAE; and Standard Edited American English, or SEAE) is a variety of English that is priviledged by those who historically hold power in the academy and in our society as a whole. SAE exists primarily as a written form of English. Because it is the language of people who have traditionally controlled American institutions of higher education, SAE is usually used on campus in our written papers, speeches, lectures, and presentations. 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”). And even within the basic category of SAE, there are more specific conventions regarding language that distinguish a science class, for example, from a class in humanities.
If we support linguistic diversity, we accept that language is not static, that we will encounter words and expressions that come from a variety of disciplines and cultural communities. Merriam Webster defines language 1  as the methods of combining words as understood by a community. By contrast, a dialect 2  is defined as a regional variety of a language. While scholars acknowledge distinctions between a language and dialect, the line between the two is not always clear or without problems. One flippant way of explaining the difference between a dialect and a language is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”; in his essay “What’s a Language, Anyway?” 3  linguist John McWhorter elaborates, arguing that there is no objective difference between a language and dialect, that the realities of speech are more complicated than these definitions allow.
We can better understand the status of SAE and the role of linguistic diversity in advancing equity and inclusion by considering the history of African American English (AAE), a variety of English spoken by some African Americans. AAE has been researched and written about extensively, more than other varieties of English, and two respected scholars of AAE are John Rickford of Stanford University and Geneva Smitherman of Michigan State University. Like most spoken languages, AAE is rule-governed and systematic, although the system is too complicated and vast to summarize here. Today, AAE is accepted as a variety of English, but it was rejected as a language in the past and it has been and continues to be maligned using racist ideas about black speech and intelligence. Two highly politicized cases about the use of AAE in public schools are Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board 4  from 1979 and Oakland Unified School District’s 1996 resolution 5  to use AAE. In both cases, the use of AAE by educators as a way to affirm the validity of AAE and to help students learn SAE was considered controversial. It is helpful to know this history when considering AAE in academic contexts.
In addition to SAE, other rule-governed varieties of American English include 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.

Helpful Questions 6.3.1. Embracing Linguistic Diversity.

  • Do I assume the English that I speak and write is the only way to communicate ideas?
  • Do I use the terms “correct English” or “standard English” or “proper English”? If so, do I accept the value judgments inherent in these terms?
  • What assumptions do I make about a writer or speaker based on the English that they use?
  • What are words that I use in my writing and speech that may be markers of my culture?
  • What are words specific to my academic discipline that may not be understood outside that discipline?
  • What are writing conventions specific to my academic discipline?
Because the rules regarding language construction and use are complex, this section is intended as a general guideline for how to approach linguistic diversity. If you want in-depth information on sociolinguistics, or what constitutes a vernacular, dialect, or language, here is a short list of recommended reading about linguistic diversity:
There are also excellent resources on these topics here on campus. Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking an English course on the history of English, or courses in African American Studies, Asian Studies, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, and Latino/a Studies would be a good way to continue learning, as would getting involved in programs through your university’s diversity center.