Correct it, Joe

Today’s One Big Happy has Joe making a classic response to his dad’s attempt to get him to “correct” a sentence.


His dad is working from the position that the sentence is in fact incorrect, and incorrect in a specific way, namely grammatically: it contains the grammatical triple-threat ain’t got no. As far as Joe is concerned, there’s nothing wrong with the form of the sentence, so his dad must be asking for a correction of the content. Joe recognizes that his sister Ruthie does in fact have cereal, but thinks that she lacks sense, so he offers that as a correction.

Two issues here. First, the sentence is grammatically ill-formed only in a particular variety of English, formal standard English, while Joe is speaking an informal non-standard (but extremely widespread) variety, in which don’t got no is entirely well-formed. What Joe’s dad is asking him to do is shift from his everyday variety to another variety, one you’re supposed to use in school and some other social contexts.

Second, ordinary people frequently (and children quite regularly) understand requests for correction (and requests for judgments on particular examples) to be about matters of fact, not matters of form. Judging sentences on their form, rather than their content, is something you learn to do in school — a special skill that doesn’t come naturally or easily.

We’ve been down this path before. Last time, on 5/28/14, it was Ruthie getting at James (again, over ain’t got no):


What I said then was:

Three features of “I ain’t got no crayon”: (1) ain’t as the negative counterpart of forms of do; (2) got ‘have, possess’; (3) “double negation”, with a negative verb together with nominal negation in no, together conveying an emphatic negative, not a positive. James almost surely learned these features from the models of other speakers (rather than from tacit reasoning about the system of English), and the features are unlikely to pass away on their own (though James might well come to use such features as (1)-(3) in some social contexts but shift to more standard alternatives in other contexts)

In #2, James is firmly fixed on an issue of fact, namely the lack of crayons, and simply dismisses Ruthie’s bone-headedly dinging at him about words. James has a firm sense about what’s important here. But Ruthie has been indoctrinated into the ways of school, so she can’t keep from trying to “fix” James, even when they’re talking in an informal context.

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