Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dialect: The rule is 'don't'

Can you guess from the hed where this one is going?

GREENLAND, N.H. -- Rick Perry, who entered the 2012 GOP race Saturday, greeted his first crowd of voters here with two words rarely heard in these parts: with a wave, he let out a boisterous “Hi, y’all” to a crowd clad in khakis and button ups gathered around a backyard pool.

Really? People in New Hampshire don't hear "hi" very much? Did we miss last week's Outlook section?

In a CNN debate in New Hampshire this summer, she introduced herself to voters by listing her professional credentials first: "Hi, my name is Michele Bachmann. I'm a former federal tax litigation attorney."

Sorry, that wasn't nice. But anyway, we seem to have a reporter who's obsessed with "y'all," and that can't end well:

There was also this: “Y’all holler outta question” to open up a question and answer* session.

No there wasn't. "Outta" stands for "out of," as in "Straight Outta Compton" or ... oh, other recent Post tales:

“I got back to class like, ‘Pfffft, I’m outta here,’ ” On says.

In "holler out a question," the "a" isn't an unstressed preposition. It's an article that goes with "question," as the Post usually seems able to recognize:

As Charles arrived at Georgetown's Healy Hall, a British reporter called out a question about what the prince would discuss with the president. (May 5, 2011)

While Conte was describing the hotel's incarnation as a soldiers' hospital during World War II, a petite woman wearing a name tag called out a question. (Jan. 10, 2010)

But when a reporter shouted out a question about whether Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) should resign after his conviction on bribery-related charges, Biden said not a word. (Oct. 29, 2008)

So two issues are in play here. The smaller (OK, and somewhat snarkier) one is that a writer who can't hear what people are doing with language shouldn't try to reproduce dialect; if the problem persists, the desk needs to step in and put a stop to it. The larger one is the sort of risk you run by singling out Rick Perry's so-called "Texas twang" as the dialect you try to reproduce.

That's partly a partisan issue. If someone accuses you of showing a bias against conservatives by making fun of their language, you don't have much of a defense. And pleading innocent on that charge -- no, we make fun of everybody who doesn't sound like us! -- actually digs you in deeper:

... There were times when the three-term Texas governor sounded eerily like the “Saturday Night Live” version of George W. Bush, droppin’ every “g” and proclaiming “awesome” at nothing in particular.

That's a whole different bundle of class, regional and cultural biases: not just that people from the South talk funny, but that norms of political speech are properly measured by particular late-night comedy shows (and that everyone in the audience can immediately conjure a mental image of SNL's Bush Jr. imitator**).

His appearance raised the question that is at the center of his candidacy: Can Perry take his Texas twang on the road and meet voters where they live, in cities and suburbs and swing states?

Leaving aside the linguistic meaninglessness of "twang" -- whoa. Does the Post really think there's no twang in any cities, suburbs or swing states where voters might live? Or has it just run out of editors who are willing to ask why a reporter's cultural fantasies belong in news coverage?

The Post's stylebook actually has some mildly useful reminders on the subject (under "quotations"):

Quotations of people whose speech is marked by dialect, incorrect grammar or profanity often present difficult choices.

Not really. If you consider "standard English" to be a dialect (which it is), everybody's speech is "marked by dialect." More "grammar" than we'd like to admit is in the eyes of the beholder. And even if you can't tell profanity from obscenity, you can paraphrase.***

In general, try to avoid condescension. Unless difficulties with the language are relevant to the story, as in an article about teaching English to immigrants or a profile of Yogi Berra, it is advisable to correct minor errors of grammar and usage. Such locutions as hafta, gonna, gotta, whaddaya and woulda should be spelled out in correct form unless they are stressed for effect.

Prone as I am to railing against the tyranny of the stylebook, and culture-bound as this entry is, it's handy to have it in writing. Yes, the writer's likely to win in an argument about "relevance to the story," but at least you have a starting point.

The Bush Jr. presidency was a disaster on many dimensions, none of which had anything to do with his dialect. Our Prestige Newspapers would do well to bear that distinction in mind. For reporters, there are two simple steps to remember:

1) Don't try to write in dialect unless you're Mark Twain

2) You aren't

Any questions?

* Yes, you should probably hyphenate "question-and-answer" as a preposed modifier. And "button-ups," while you have the hyphen gun out.
** Not that I think it's a valid point to begin with, but I can't.
*** You can prick your finger, but ...

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Blogger Chance said...

Excellently put. I had the same problem with "outta question."

11:35 PM, August 15, 2011  
Anonymous LisaMc said...

I love the idea of a "hyphen gun." Where can I get one? :)
Oh, and the rest of the post is spot on, too.

9:18 PM, August 16, 2011  

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