Culture wins over grammar

A reader contacted me recently in response to a column I wrote defending Southern culture.

His complaint about Southerners is this: so many of us seem to use - and tolerate - bad grammar.

This reader was careful to point out that there is a difference between dialect, which includes colloquialisms like "y'all" and the drawl that goes with them, and the use of bad grammar - subjects and verbs that don't agree (he don't), contractions that don't really exist (ain't), and prepositions at the end of a sentence (where is it at?).

While he sees and appreciates dialect as part of any culture, he is increasingly irritated by Southerners' apparent disregard for many grammar rules.

To clarify his point - and to, he hoped, avoid sounding like a snob - he suggested we discuss the topic over the phone rather than via email.

I felt a wave of panic at the thought of having to emerge from behind the safe boundaries of electronic communication, where self-editing and grammar check were my allies.

I would be forced to produce error-free, intelligible spoken English on the fly, despite my Southern upbringing.

Of course, I'm only kidding. But I was a bit concerned.

Although my Southern accent is subtle, it has a tendency to become more distinct when I am impassioned about something.

A boss told me once that I sounded Southern only when I was really angry.

"Well, kiss my grits," I said.

I certainly didn't want to get to the grits stage with this dear reader. In fact, as a former English teacher, I too am appalled by abuse of our beautiful language.

During the conversation, I kept coming back to the same questions, which neither of us could satisfactorily answer. Why do people use incorrect grammar? Is it willful ignorance, lack of education or something else?

I insisted that I had heard educated Southern persons violate the rules of English grammar in speech, while in their written communication (whether aided by grammar check or not), these same rules were respected.

Then, as we were discussing some of the more colorful colloquialisms, I thought of a possible answer for our questions.

In the South, we have a phrase to describe someone who, perhaps through elevated speech, clothing or mannerisms, seems conceited, like they're too good for the folks around them.

We call it "gettin' above your raisin.'" (That's raisin' as in how you were raised, not the dried fruit).

When it comes to language, there are times when we might speak in the vernacular in order to fit in with the group.

To suddenly break out with perfectly correct English would seem false, affected.

This defense may sound - well, backward - but I can understand why deliberately bad grammar happens, even if it bothers me as much as it does my responsive reader.

You never want to come across as fake, either too formal or informal.

Think of how voters responded to Al Gore when he ran for president.

It goes the other way, too.

Although I was raised around people who used words like "young'un" (which means child) and "reckon" (as in, "I reckon he don't know where it's at"), I could never bring myself to incorporate those words into my vocabulary.

They were too country, even for me. Coming out of my mouth, they would sound affected.

Somewhere in between Al Gore and the young'uns, I have found a voice that is right for me. Each of us does.

And, interestingly, it changes subtly over time and across situations.

Who knows?

Maybe someday, my dear reader will embrace "ain't" as part of the rich culture that surrounds him.

True, some people just don't know better, and have atrocious grammar in both spoken and written form.

But for many of us, we just don't want to get above our raisin'.