The Misery of Non-Standard English (and the Lack Thereof)

Thanks to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I am at war with cliches. I’ve never much cared for them, but his character Shadow makes such a fuss out of cliches, and how much he hates them, that I began listening to myself. Oops. I use far too much non-standard English for someone who makes his living crafting words and who holds a master’s degree in creative writing. That led me to examine my written narrative, and try to eliminate as many cliches as possible. In the aftermath of that assault on my own grammar and sentence structure, a larger problem appeared.

Simply for the ease of discussing non-standard English, I want to separate it into four categories. There is a difference between these four subsets, and they are important, at least from a narrative point of view. These qualify as commonplaces, words or phrases that are immediately understood by an audience, so the speaker or writer does not have to launch into lengthy explanation. Unfortunately, some are so overused as to be annoying.

Colloquialism — The specific language of a region. Every region, some as small as urban neighborhoods, has its own words and phrases that help unite locals. I know Southern colloquialisms well. Who else says “that stinks worse than a skunk in heat” or “can’t beat that with a stick.” We all know to duck when we hear “Hold my beer and watch this.” Yes, it is said, and yes, it does result in carnage, bless their hearts.

Slang — The language of a specific group of people. High school students (of any generation), surfers, Star Wars geeks, evangelical Christians, neopagans, or any other group you can think of, have their own languages. The most famous is perhaps that of old jazz musicians, who gave us words like “cool,” “groovy,” and “man,” as in hey, man. The origin of the last one is fascinating. Louis Armstrong created it because, as a black man from New Orleans, he was fed up with being called “boy.” He began addressing his other fellow jazz players as “man” to build their self-esteem. These words often enter the popular culture and end up as everyone’s pet slang words. Eventually, we forget that they’re slang. Nifty, huh?

Jargon — The language of a profession. There probably isn’t much difference between slang and jargon, but I differentiate them for my own purposes. Slang seems to have cultural origins while jargon originates within an industry. For instance, the word hack means something completely different to a computer programmer at work than it does when he’s trimming the hedges at home. We think IT people play with animals when they mention gnus and pythons. My wife works for a law firm and sometimes I have to remind her that I don’t know a quid from a habeas. Speaking of jargon, I forced the English major term “commonplace” upon you, poor reader.

Cliches — Words or phrases that may have been slang or jargon or just popular, but are overused to the point of nauseating some of us. I think most are quotations from movies, television, and music, although they probably originate wherever they wish. When used in the proper context, and with the proper timing, such cliches can often add levity to a conversation, or serve as appropriate metaphors. Unfortunately, far too many are used simply because we are too lazy to form our own sentences. The ones guaranteed to set my teeth on edge are the all-too-popular-at-the-moment “thrown under the bus,” “I see what you did there,” and “because [insert favorite noun here].” That last one isn’t even a sentence fragment! “That’s what I’m talking about” is almost as annoying. At least “we’re talking [insert favorite subject here],” “alrighty then,” and “show me the money” have faded. Writers invoke their own cliches, often without realizing it. Just count the number of times George R. R. Martin writes “truth be told” in the course of A Song of Ice and Fire. These cliches are blatant. They can often be more insidious, however.

I’ve done my best to expunge popular cultural references from my vocabulary. I will never say “King Tut” and “T-Rex.” They are Tutankhamen and Tyrannosaurus Rex, a king and a predator worthy of their full names. However, despite my strident vendetta against cliches, far too may trite turns of phrases still exist in my speech and writing. An example is “splitting hairs.” Why can’t I say “there’s no difference?” Here’s another one to whet your appetite. “There’s something rotten in Denmark.” How would I know? I’ve never been to Denmark. Did you also catch the cliche in the sentence that preceded the comment about Denmark? I grew up with these words and phrases, and they stuck in my subconscious mind without permission. I say them without realizing just how overused they are.

To be fair to the four categories above, in the framework of the subject of writing, non-standard English can set a story in a time or place. If a story occurs in the 1920s, nothing establishes it better than the slang of the Jazz Age. If a story is set in the South, someone best say a colloquialism or two. Mechanics bowling in San Francisco should talk like mechanics from San Francisco, not lawyers from Boston playing golf. As I pointed out in the first paragraph, Neil Gaiman wrote an entire novel with cliches as a subtheme. Non-standard English also helps establish characterization; imagine dialogue between someone who uses standard English but peppered with colloquialism, another who invokes numerous movie quotations, and a third who uses words specific to the medical industry. That tells the reader quite a bit about the personalities of the characters.

Expunging colloquialisms, slang, jargon, and cliches from my writing has created an opposite, but defiantly unequal, problem. In fact, the aftermath may be worse. My narrative now sounds stilted and all too formal. As the story is set in the third person singular point of view, I am often in my protagonist’s head, revealing her thoughts and feelings. No twenty-one year old, at any time, has ever thought to herself in the language of a college professor giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. I doubt if college professors think to themselves like college professors giving a lecture on Kantian philosophy. Real people just don’t do that. Why bother with “I am offended at the inferior quality of this tawdry morning” when “Today sucks” will suffice?

The solution is to restore colloquialism, slang, and jargon to the story, but not those of 21st Century America. I need to create them for 11th Century Ayrdland. My character, Aura Lockhaven, comes from a time when at least 90 percent of all culture was local. If such a thing as popular culture existed, it entered a village through the traveling minstrel, the parish priest, or someone returning from a visit to another village. The exceptions might be the priesthood and nobility, who had easier access to each other, although even that was limited to the speed of a horse over unpaved roads. Hence, Aura should invoke colloquialisms specific to her village and shire. That would just be natural for her. As an enchantress, she should spew jargon common to magicians in her order (they know what they mean and really don’t care if the alchemists understand or not). I will have to create these, of course, and a thorough perusal of Chaucer and Shakespeare ought to get the creative juices flowing (ARGH! I invoked another cliche!). Aura already has a verbal tick. A few more spread out among the characters, along with appropriate colloquialisms, slang, and jargon, and the story will sound like normal people engaged in normal thoughts and normal conversations.

I will need to remember to limit the use of non-standard English (non-standard Ayrdish?) to when I’m in Aura’s head, and not when I’m the raven perched on her shoulder taking notes. Even as the corvidal secretary, I need to remind myself to write a bit more lyrically, and save the highfalutin vocabulary for a treatise on Robert Howard in a formal journal.

I’m not sure what I will do if in the future, I’m in the local tavern for a beer and hear someone utter Aura’s verbal tick as part of a conversation. I reckon I’ll just roll my eyes and say, “Dog my cats.”


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