January 9, 2001
A dialect is a regional variation, spoken or written, of a standard language. Dialects are distinguished from standard language and from each other by pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
In the United States, English is the standard language. However, Spanish is widely spoken in the South and Southwest. Regional dialects include, among others, African-American (also called Black English or Ebonics), Appalachian, Creole, midwestern, and northeastern, each with its own distinctive features. No matter which dialect one learns at home, however, everyone should be able to communicate in the standard dialect, which in the U.S. is American English.
While dialect serves a useful purpose in uniting common speakers with similar backgrounds and shared interests, it is wise to reserve its usage for situations where nonstandard language is acceptable. Most writing--especially business documents apart from informal writing such as personal letters or e-mail--require standard English. While nonstandard dialects are not "wrong" in themselves, when used out of context, the speaker/writer may be perceived as using incorrect speech or he or she may not be clearly understood by the intended audience.
SAMPLES OF NONSTANDARD ENGLISH:
should of (standard use = "should have")
his'n (standard use = "his")
better [do something] (standard use = "should" do something)
SPELLING OR WRITING TIP
When searching for an Internet mailing list on a particular topic, go to an address like one of these:
You also can search for a topic through e-mail:
1. Send a message to email@example.com
2. Leave the subject line blank
3. In the message area, type "list global" or "list global/[your subject]."
You will receive a listserv response via e-mail.
NEW WORD OF THE WEEK:
*XEROX (zir-ocks) noun: 1. a trademark for a photocopying process or machine using xerography. 2. a copy made on a Xerox machine.
Is the Xerox machine broken again?
*Note: Although the word "xerox" (in lower case letters) has come into widespread use to represent any kind of duplication done by a copying machine, the use of this word really should be reserved for machines bearing its official name.
YOUR GRAMMAR AND WRITING QUESTIONS
QUESTION: I've been saving your articles for well over a year as one of many reference guides, and I must say I've learned quite a bit.
Being a dumb trucker driver who's blind and can't read, I haven't found how to set off the name of a possession, such as a boat called the Mary Lou. Would "Mary Lou" be underlined or in quotations? Also, when a title such as "Captain" is part of a name, is it capitalized. When is it capitalized otherwise?
GRAMMARCHECK: Names of vehicles (such as trains, ships, and aircraft) are italicized or underlined in writing. You are right in saying that "Captain" is capitalized when it is part of a proper name:
Captain John Smith
Captain James Kirk
"Captain" also should be capitalized when it refers to a person who has already been identified or who is addressed in direct speech.
Did the Captain revise his orders yet?
Captain, supplies are running low.
If the person holding the title is unknown or unreferenced directly, the title is not capitalized:
Who's the captain of this ship?
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QUESTION: Is there a way to simply look up a symbol for rules on punctuation usage, i.e., the semi-colon (;)?
GRAMMARCHECK: Many quality English or writing handbooks offer a list of punctuation symbols with their usage. Check your local bookstore or library for titles.
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QUESTION: Thank you, thank you, thank you! At the age of 33, I would hardly consider myself old, but I was starting to get a serious complex because of all the people in their early 20s telling me I'm wrong to put two spaces after each period.
Reading a document with only one space after each sentence is annoying and awkward. I find myself struggling to control the urges to circle all the offending spaces with a red pen and send the paper back to the author for a rewrite.
Here is another question in the same vein. My typing teacher, Mrs. Young of Rowland High School, instructed us to put two spaces after a colon as well. My Microsoft Word program thinks this is wrong and tells me so with an annoying squiggly red line. What is the official word on spaces after a colon?
Thanks for your great newsletter!
GRAMMARCHECK: Glad to be of service, Lisa. We agree with your views on post-period spacing, but concede that the trend is moving toward one space only between sentences.
However, the same principle has gained ground rapidly with regards to many punctuation marks--among them, the colon. To advocate the most current usage, only one space follows a colon when the first statement is followed by another sentence, clause, or phrase:
To be or not to be: that is the question.
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QUESTION: I have been reading your column (passed on by a friend) for a few months now and find your tips invaluable in my line of work.
My question concerns the use of words such as collapsible and available. Both have similar endings, yet one is spelled with an "i" and the other, with an "a." Words like these end up in the copy I have to edit and often my clients misspell their copy and leave me with the dilemma--which ending is correct for each word?
Is there a simple solution to understanding the use of -ible over -able, or do I really need to consult a dictionary every time this crops up? Note also that I'm editing Australian copy, which throws another spanner in the works. Please help.
GRAMMARCHECK: Hi Cath! Unfortunately, words with such endings are individualized and cannot be categorized with others of their kind. Other than memorizing them all, you can look them up in the dictionary, use a spell checker, or keep a list of such words that are commonly found in the work you edit.
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QUESTION: Please clarify the proper use of the following sentence. I learned "was" should be used when one speaks of the singular, and "were" when one speaks of plural entities. Lately, I have become disgusted to find that professionals, including authors, use "were" when speaking of solo subjects:
Example: The dog ate slowly, as if he were getting sick.
I think "were" should be replaced with "was" above, because "dog" is singular.
Please shed some light on this matter. I am eagerly waiting to hear from you. Thank you, D.
GRAMMARCHECK: The problem you are encountering can be explained by pointing out the use of the subjective mood in English. "Mood" describes how a statement should be understood. Indicative mood shows factual information. Imperative mood gives a command. But subjunctive mood involves a
condition, a wish or desire, or a possibility. Verb form indicates a shift in mood.
Indicative: The dog ate slowly, as he WAS getting sick. (a statement of fact)
Subjunctive: The dog ate slowly, as IF he WERE getting sick. (a possibility)
Look for more on the mood forms in an upcoming feature article.
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