Carlos Echeverría, Katherine Kerschen, and Javier López Seoane
When we hear words like language and grammar, we tend to think of rules or norms that we’re supposed to follow in order to speak “correctly.” For example, we think about the correct past tense form of go being went and not goed. Ideas of correctness in language are sometimes referred to as linguistic prescriptivism. One of the most important contributions of modern linguistics has been the notion that there is value in studying languages as they are actually spoken, by kids, adults, and everyone in between. In fact, from a linguist’s perspective, cases that are considered incorrect can often be the most interesting to study. In this research summary, we present a couple of examples to show how aspects of language that may be considered incorrect are actually quite systematic and follow their own sets of rules.
To “be” or not to “be”
The verb be is among the most common verbs in the English language, and when we look at how it’s used across different dialects or varieties, we see that it’s also one of the most interesting. In the following sentence, this verb is used in the present tense (as the form is):
- I know, but he is wild, though.
In some English varieties, another way to say the same would be like this:1
- I know, but he wild, though.
In this version, the verb appears to be missing, and yet the sentence has basically the same meaning as the one above. Are speakers making mistakes when they appear to omit be like this? While some English teachers might say yes, decades of linguistic research have shown that these omissions are not mistakes at all. In fact, when we look a bit more closely, we find that these speakers are actually following very particular rules and patterns for when be must be included, and when it does not need to be.
Researcher Toya Wyatt has shown that, from as early as preschool, African American children already display knowledge of rules and shared patterns for when be must be used, and when they can say a sentence without it.2 For example, she finds a tendency for be-less sentences where the verb would follow a pronoun (e.g., she, he, they). However, when the subject is a full name like Mary or a longer phrase like the teacher, children prefer to include the verb most of the time. So their sentences might look like this:
- “Mary is happy today.”
- “She happy today.”
Wyatt also found, for instance, that when the children were talking about the past, they almost always included be:
- “Mary was happy yesterday.” ✓
- “Mary happy yesterday.” ☓
What’s remarkable here is that kids are learning these shared patterns and rules before they even get to school. So while their teachers may encourage them to use be all the time when they’re at school, when we look more closely at how they use this verb in more natural conversation, we can clearly see that they are working with a well-developed linguistic system. In other words, they are not simply making mistakes!
Another language feature that sometimes gets called incorrect is codeswitching, which happens when bilingual speakers switch back and forth between languages in the same conversation or even the same sentence. For example, in Quebec, Canada, you might hear a speaker switching back and forth between French and English like this:3
- I called him and you know, asked him to go over and get me deux chiens-chauds, tout garnis.
- (Translation: I called him and you know, asked him to go over and get me two hotdogs, all dressed.)
While some may look at codeswitching as an incorrect and even haphazard way of speaking, research has shown that this kind of speech is very systematic, and it even follows particular patterns and rules.
To understand how codeswitching is systematic, let’s look at an example with switching between English and Spanish. Both of these languages have short words like the, a, and an, called determiners, which come before nouns (e.g., the car, an apple). In Spanish, like in many other languages, determiners come with a gender (feminine or masculine) attached to them. For instance, in Spanish the car becomes el coche, which is masculine, while the table becomes la mesa, which is feminine.
Now here comes the cool part: in codeswitched speech, speakers tend to have specific preferences for what gender a Spanish determiner should be, even when it precedes an English noun! Here’s an example of a Spanish-English code-switched sentence from a bilingual community in Miami:4
- Pero no tenían el flag out there?
- (Translation: But didn’t they have the flag out there?)
This example contains the codeswitched phrase el flag, with a Spanish determiner (el) and an English noun (flag). Because Spanish determiners mark gender but English ones do not, with switches like this it seems that the speaker has a decision to make: Should the determiner be masculine or feminine? If codeswitching were haphazard, then we would see lots of randomness in people’s decisions. But, importantly, research has shown that in situations like this, speakers are actually choosing the gender of determiners quite systematically. For example, one study by Jorge Valdés Kroff showed that speakers tend to choose masculine determiners to modify English nouns, even when the Spanish equivalent of the noun is feminine.5 So while codeswitching might at first glance seem haphazard, there are clear and discernible patterns to the switching, and knowledge of these patterns seems to be shared within codeswitching communities.
With the examples above we hope to have provided a slightly different perspective on language rules from the one you may have been taught in grammar school. When we look a bit more closely at language features that are perceived to be incorrect or random, we find patterns that suggest people are following rules when using these features. Most remarkably, these are rules that they did not learn in school, but that they deduced by themselves just from listening and talking to each other.
While prescriptive rules can no doubt be useful, for instance for language teaching, what’s considered correct from a prescriptive point of view is often arbitrary. Moreover, even when speakers do not adhere to what’s typically considered correct, they still tend to adopt distinct rules and patterns in their speech, be it in their use of a particular verb or when switching between two languages. In other words, “incorrect” doesn’t necessarily mean chaotic, and this is a lesson that’s best learned by looking at actual linguistic use.
- Labov, W. (1969). Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copula. Language, 45(4): 715–762.
- Wyatt, T. A. (2006). The role of family, community, and school in children’s acquisition and maintenance of African American English. In S. L. Lanehart (ed.), Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English (pp. 261–280). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Poplack, S., J. A. Walker, & R. Malcolmson (2006). An English “like no other”?: language contact and change in Quebec. Canadian Journal of Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique, 51(2/3), 185–213.
- Valdés Kroff, J. R., P. E. Dussias, C. Gerfen, L. Perrotti, & M. T. Bajo (2017). Experience with code-switching modulates the use of grammatical gender during sentence processing. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 7(2): 163–198.
- Valdés Kroff, J. R. (2016). Mixed NPs in Spanish-English bilingual speech: using a corpus-based approach to inform models of sentence processing. In R. E. Guzzardo Tamargo, C. M. Mazak, & M. C. Parafita Couto (eds.), Spanish-English Codeswitching in the Caribbean and the US (pp. 281–300). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.