Nonstandard English



I am a foreign student living in San Diego who is trying to learn English. I listen to the radio in English so I can practice my listening comprehension. I am confused because in almost every song I hear things like: “He don't love me” or “He ain't no good for me” or “I don't got no money.” I don't learn this grammar in my class, but everyone uses it in songs or on TV. Can I speak like that? Should I imitate real language or should I follow the rules in the book?

From Brazil


The examples you give are "real language" for some people but not for everybody or every situation. Some forms of the spoken language are not well accepted in business use or in schools or in other situations where the rules are important. The examples of "real language" that you cite are among those.

You have found these examples in popular songs and on TV. Certain rules of grammar that you have been taught are not followed; in fact, different rules apply.

For example, the accepted forms of "he doesn't," "she doesn't," and "it doesn't" are not used in the "real language" you cite; instead, the forms "he don't," "she don't," and "it don't" are used ("He don't love me") as well as the double negative ("I don't got no money").

While both "don't" in the third person singular and the double negative were widely used in earlier times, today these rules are considered to be "nonstandard." Some people feel that they show the speaker to be uneducated in the use of "good English." So why do you hear such language in songs and on TV? The singers and actors and much of their audience use this kind of language naturally, and indeed, it is one form of English. It may be that they are comfortable with this kind of language, or prefer to keep using it, thereby sending the message that they are just ordinary people, part of the working class, not highly educated and not trying to be better than anyone else.

The dialect or form of language that a person uses comes from various sociological and psychological forces in his/her background. Political issues are also an influence. Among some people, it's correct to speak the "real language" you refer to, and speaking another way could be considered false or snobbish. However, if you are going to school in an English-speaking country, or working or doing business with English speakers, people will note that your English is nonstandard. The fact that you speak in a nonstandard way could, realistically, impede your chances of advancement in work. Socially, too, many people who value "correct" English might count this against you.

Which way should you speak? You should be comfortable with the people you are interacting with, and use the language that they do. As a non-native speaker, you are wise to be sensitive to the differences in dialect.

Barbara Matthies

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