Call me ungrammatical: When dialect is more important than diction

People turn to journalists to stay updated on breaking news, to be entertained and to get a deeper look into interesting ideas. They also turn to journalists for the truth.

Journalism ethics tell writers not to quote sources with saying something they did not say. If it’s not a direct quote, don’t put it in quotation marks. If writers need to paraphrase, they can, as long as they aren’t making up facts.

The latter of these ideals is especially important in situations when the speaker doesn’t use a complete sentence or has several gaps between ideas.

Paraphrasing and partial quotes can also be used in situations where the speaker doesn’t have what is considered to be proper grammar. In these cases, writers sometimes just fix the grammar in a direct quote.

“Gonna” becomes “going to,” and “not doing nothing” becomes “not doing anything.”

Sometimes, journalists with slightly cruel intentions don’t fix these to make the speaker seem somewhat ignorant.

Kevin Gould, a University of Colorado graduate student and linguistics teacher’s assistant, also notes that if an author or editor wants a quoted person to seem less intelligent, they might include auditory pauses such as “uh” and “um.”

Most journalists and readers would agree that quotes should not be used in a manner that portrays the speaker in a negative light.

But what happens when changing quotes, in an attempt to make a speaker look less or more intelligent, actually makes them appear as someone they are not?

I’m not talking about twisting a good guy’s words to make him look bad or bracketing words to change the meaning of a politician’s speech.

I am referring to cases concerning African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics.

Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, goes into great detail about AAVE for the PBS series “Do You Speak American?”

AAVE first gained national attention in the 1970s, and in 1996 raised great controversy when the Oakland School Board recognized it as a genetically-based language.

This caused great outrage. People believed the school board wanted to teach “English as a second language” and was promoting ungrammatical English or slang.

Baron says that most linguists view AAVE as a dialect of English. Instead of being slang, dialects are “consistent, legitimate varieties of language, with rules, conventions and exceptions, just like standard English.”

Baron also says that people who speak nonstandard English are often discriminated against due to their language, in addition to the discrimination they face for being a part of an already marginalized group.

Gould believes this type of discrimination is also possible in print. Just as writers can use auditory pauses to make a speaker seem unintelligent, they can also choose to correct or not correct nonstandard dialect features, such as those common to AAVE, to portray the speaker in a certain light.

Journalists might think they are doing the speaker a favor by correcting their “ungrammatical” English, but by doing so, they are taking away the culture and the essence of the speaker. This is not printing the truth.

People speak in AAVE not because they are unintelligent or don’t know how to speak in “proper” English. They do so because that is what is natural to them. It embodies the bigger spectrum of the speaker’s real life.

People from different backgrounds speak differently. That’s part of what makes people unique.

I think it’s fair to assume that the journalists who fix what they see as errors in print would not do the same during an in-person interview.

As strongly as I feel about this issue, it will never be resolved.

Criticisms about vernacular have been occurring since at least 1937, when Zora Neale Hurston released “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Other African American authors slammed Hurston for, among other things, her use of vernacular.

Many of these authors wanted to portray black characters in uplifting, non-stereotypical ways. They believed that Hurston was doing exactly the opposite.

But Hurston’s book spoke volumes to people of all races and classes.

Baron’s conclusion helps us better understand how this vernacular drew in so many readers. He says it is the “richness and flexibility” of language rather than a strict, vaguely-defined standard that leads to successful communication.

It’s a point that bears repeating: we cannot have lively conversation without language that is just as colorful and distinct.

Many people become journalists because they want to give a voice to those who often go unheard. Why, then, should we change the sound of these voices to fit the norm?

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