Blogging as a Constraint on Parenting Options:

A comment on the What Do Descriptivists Teach Their Children thread lead me to think: Will I practice what I preach with my children? Will I indeed teach them (once they're at an age to grasp this) that "ain't" is simply something that one would be wise not to use — for fear of being perceived as ill-educated — or will I break down and just insist that it's wrong, wrong, wrong?

I like to think that I'll teach my kids the truth as I see it — but in addition to the intellectual and moral reasons to do this, I have a more practical one: My views on "ain't" are now online. One day my boys will be able to look for them. And I can't afford to say anything that the results of a search for "ain't" will contradict.

M. Lederman (mail):
Your views on "ain't" *are* now online.

7.24.2007 11:44am
Spartacus (www):
The search brings up a lot of comments that do not necessarily represent EV's preferred usage: nor would I want him to start to criticize every commentor who uses "ain't".
7.24.2007 11:51am
LTEC (mail) (www):
(returning to the theme of a previous comment of mine)

You are constantly saying that "other people" think less of people who use the word "ain't", and that's why it is wise not to use it. But what about yourself? Are you as liberal and nonjudgmental as you wish to be? When you meet someone who uses "ain't" and speaks with "bad" grammar, don't you automatically think less of the person? Be honest now.

And by the way, why do we insist on writing "ain't" instead of "aint"? Is it because we are concerned with using "correct" grammar?
7.24.2007 12:00pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
M. Lederman: D'oh! Fixed the typo, thanks.

Spartacus: I was being a bit flip with the query -- I agree that other queries would be more efficient.
7.24.2007 12:06pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
Lots of intelligent people use ain't from time to time. I use it myself occasionally. So it's not a good example. What will you tell your kids if they adopt the increasingly common practice of using an apostrophe in an ordinary plural, or in a verb ending in s (as in "this show's that ...")? "It's not wrong, but intolerant people will think badly of you if you keep doing this" doesn't seem forceful enough to me, but hey, they're your kids. It's easy to criticize prescriptivists when they object to uses that are just idioms, or regional variations, or standard informal speech. How about real blunders, though?

My son, an army officer, once told one of his noncoms that if he used an apostrophe to make the word "mortar" plural on a sign he'd be taken out and shot. Maybe that's too forceful, though he may have been kidding.
7.24.2007 12:16pm
"Ain't" is just extremely casual, at least in standard or near-standard English. It doesn't belong in school essays or classroom presentations. It can be used in creative writing or in performing plays, in which case it says something about the character, the situation, or both. Using it in ordinary conversation is a matter of context. Children may need a few years to work out the rules, and it probably makes sense to tell them to avoid it if they aren't sure whether it is appropriate in a given situation.

"Mortar's" as a plural is trickier because it doesn't show up in speech. Writing is more formal than speaking by definition. Even written dialogue for characters with non-standard English pronunciation doesn't have to show odd punctuation, so the exception for creative writing and theater does not apply. It might come up in a movie, for example if a noncom in the story actually made the sign discussed above, but there's no other reason to write it except not knowing the standard rule. That makes it a much stronger indication of education (or lack of same) than the other example, and parents are justified if they try to stamp it out.
7.24.2007 12:35pm
Mike Keenan:
I think you will learn that most of that kind of teaching is done by example. But, if one of my 4 kids says "Me and my friend went to the store", I correct him or her by saying "My friend and I". I don't bother to explain why. Are you saying you wouldn't correct yours in the same circumstance? I have a hard time stopping myself. Obviously, I wouldn't admonish an adult like that -- or even someone else's kids. Now that I think about it, I can't ever remember questioning my daughter's English. Only my son uses ill-sounding (to me) constructions.

Well, if you don't do it, you are a better man than me ("correct" is I, I suppose, but that is not the kind of construction I would "correct").
7.24.2007 12:42pm
New World Dan (www):
As someone who is not a famous law professor, I have the joy of commenting under a pseudonym, which I change every few years. So perhaps my kid will find it a bit more difficult to trace my history. Nevertheless, I attempt to teach my child the same beliefs and practices that I have, translated into terms that a 4 year old can understand. She's already asking tough questions such as, "how come grownups get to stay up and watch TV?" She's also busted me a couple of times sneaking cookies in the kitchen, at which point, I have to give her one too. Children can be remarkably observant at times, so blogging isn't too much different from the other things we do as parents.
7.24.2007 12:55pm
Thomas A Crispin (mail):
Don't "correct" them; instead use what you consider to be proper form in reply. This has numerous advantages: it is less annoying; it can be used with children not your own; and it exercises their mirror neurons.
7.24.2007 12:56pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Hopefully your children's basic speech patterns will be formed long before they are really old enough to engage in esoteric debates on the nature of language. For young children "right" is conformity to the desires of their parents who have their best interests at heart. It's entirely appropriate for even parents who adhere to a descriptivist philosophy of language to be prescriptivist with their own children.
7.24.2007 12:57pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Alan Gunn... I'm entirely sympathetic to your son's position on the incorrect use of apostrophe s to make a plural.
7.24.2007 1:00pm
New World Dan (www):
Also more in terms of language, it is an interesting situation my daughter will deal with growing up. My wife is a bit of a formalist, while I'm a language anarchist. I do not believe in central authorities defining language and spelling. I believe that the only words with exact spellings are proper nouns, and only in their alphabet of origin. I believe that the word "whom" is deprecated as the vast majority of the population no longer uses it and most of those who do, don't use it correctly. I'm well educated and I still have trouble with it. Of course, this sort of thing drives my wife nuts. We have more trouble agreeing on how to teach language than we do on our widely differeing views on religion.
7.24.2007 1:02pm
Jurisprudence Costante:
So you feel that, having written a blog post about any inconsequential matter (and IMO the proper use of "ain't" is about as inconsequential as it gets), you are barred from ever changing your stance on that issue, or from taking any position that might contradict that blog post. And you feel this way because, in the future, one of your children might decide to search the internet archives of your website to find that post.

This is one reason I'm not a big fan of stare decisis.
7.24.2007 1:13pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
LTEC: Please be careful about what you attribute to me.

First, I am not "constantly saying that 'other people' think less of people who use the word 'ain't', and that's why it is wise not to use it." The one recent statement I recall on this is that "today using it will lead quite a few people to think the less of you." I don't believe I've ever said this view is limited to "other people," which is what your use of quotes would suggest.

Second, I wouldn't quite call my view "liberal and nonjudgmental." I do not claim never to judge people based on their use of such words -- only that I would not judge the usage to be incorrect. Ask a student of mine, or someone who has read my Academic Legal Writing book, and you'll hear that I'm plenty judgmental about usage that I judge to be inexact, too abstract, legalese, and the like. Those are perfectly sound bases for judgment; what I fault is people's judging words that are common usage -- and usually accepted by most Language Authorities, if you think the view of those Authorities rather than common usage is dispositive -- to be "incorrect," given that I think there's no basis for such a judgment.

As to your substantive question, I don't hear "ain't"s -- outside pretty clearly jocular contexts -- often enough to report accurately on how I actually react to people who use the term. My suspicion is that I don't react too strongly to such a term, because I see it and some other usages (such as the pronunciation "nucular") as often being markers of region rather than educational status. On the other hand, it's possible that I am, despite that, one of those people who does (consciously or not) think less of people who seriously use "ain't." It's hard to tell for sure. But as a general matter, I'm sure I do sometimes (often?) judge a person's educational level based on the person's speech patterns; I never claimed the contrary.
7.24.2007 1:18pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Jurisprudence Constante: Of course I am free to change my mind. What the blog makes harder is teaching children one thing while continuing to sincerely believe another.
7.24.2007 1:25pm
Philip (mail):
Here's an easy way to capture the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism: A prescriptivist would call ain't or double negatives "substandard." A descriptivist would use the term "non-standard."

Ain't isn't wrong; in formal social contexts, like a courtroom or a job interview, it is inappropriate. In other social contexts, like sitting around and talking with friends, standard usage could be equally inappropriate.
7.24.2007 1:27pm
jimbino (mail):
EV and other parents here who are grammatically challenged: I can't wait to get your kids into my SAT prep class. Though it will cost you a pretty penny, it can straighten out years of verbal abuse.
7.24.2007 1:29pm
Will I indeed teach them (once they're at an age to grasp this) that "ain't" is simply something that one would be wise not to use — for fear of being perceived as ill-educated — or will I break down and just insist that it's wrong, wrong, wrong?

Perhaps both?

As an analogy, I imagine I will teach my son (when the time comes) Newtonian mechanics, even though I know them to be incorrect in certain circumstances. But I would think one first teaches Newtonian mechanics as an initial rule, and then sometime later builds on that knowledge by teaching the circumstances in which that initial rule is OK and the circumstances in which it is not. Similarly, I would think one would first teach the rule that "ain't" is wrong, and later build on that by teaching the circumstances in which that initial rule does not hold.
7.24.2007 2:35pm
Seamus (mail):
But, if one of my 4 kids says "Me and my friend went to the store", I correct him or her by saying "My friend and I".

When I tried that, my daughter answered, "Oh, you too?"

Will I indeed teach them (once they're at an age to grasp this) that "ain't" is simply something that one would be wise not to use — for fear of being perceived as ill-educated — or will I break down and just insist that it's wrong, wrong, wrong?

Speaking only for myself, I teach them what is regarded as "standard English," the contexts in which that is preferable to the alternatives, and the fact that "standard English" changes over time, so that constructions that were regarded as unacceptable when I was growing up (e.g., contractions in scholarly articles) are now commonplace. I also mention that certain "rules" that they might hear ("never split an infinitive") are bogus, but are often good to follow unless you know your audience pretty well, because there are a lot of people out there who promote their idiosyncrasies and prejudices to the status of "rules." I never insist that certain constructions are "wrong, wrong, wrong" in any absolute sense.

Jim Lindren, who taught my criminal law class and who posts here, once wrote a law review article that recommended "Webster's Dictionary of English Usage." On his recommendation, I went out and bought a copy. It's a great work for cutting through the myths about "correct" usage. I often consult it when I have a question about what constitutes "standard English."
7.24.2007 2:41pm
Your "ain't" problem is entirely American. On my tongue, ain't is quaint.
7.24.2007 2:55pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
jimbino --
EV is not grammatically challenged -- not that he thinks he thinks there's anything wrong with that.

EV --
I'm sorry I said your thoughts referred to "other people" rather than "quite a few people", but there is the serious issue of whether you include yourself amongst (or is it among?) those people who think less of one for saying "ain't". And it's not just about "ain't" but about "I seen him do it" and about black ghetto speak and about other dialects often considered "substandard". Now it seems that you are saying that such speech is not in any sense wrong (let alone wrong, wrong, wrong), but just something that causes you to judge that a person has a low educational level ... which is also not wrong, but just something that causes you to judge that the person doesn't know squat about the subject under discussion ... which is also not wrong, but just something that causes you to think that the person would probably not be an interesting person to talk to right now ...

I think you are one of the brightest and wisest people writing on the internet today, but I think you sometimes err by creating an intellectual structure inappropriate for people. You are correct when you criticize people for making up a false historical context for their feelings about grammar (and probably a true historical context wouldn't be much better). But I think that you also err when you imply that you do not have such feelings, but rather that you engage in a series of intellectual deductions when you hear someone speak. People don't work like that. Those deductions, if they happen at all, happen instantly and we summarize them by saying, "that's just wrong".
7.24.2007 3:35pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):

Allow me to note (from the vantage of the parent of an adolescent male) that if your internet-available suggestion that "ain't" is inappropriate for use for descriptive rather than prescriptive reasons, is the worst instance your children ever find of your not practicing what you preach, you will have had a remarkably and fortunately uneventful stretch of parenthood.

7.24.2007 5:18pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
"Ain't" doesn't upset me in the least. I hear it in a variety of contexts, some jocular, others as ordinary speech. Living in the South, I hear it daily in the locally dominant form of American English. The word has a history of oscillating between transgressive use and ordinary use by speakers who consider it standard in their dialects.

What causes a twinge, though, is "aren't" in the formation, "Aren't I?" It's common enough to be considered standard, but it clashes so strongly with the grammar I learned that I'll just have to live and die with the discomfort. "Am I not?" works for me most of the time; when it doesn't, I'll recast the sentence. Luckily, I seem to have a editor sitting between my thoughts and my tongue, listening to what I'm about to say before I actually utter the words.
7.24.2007 7:29pm
I ain't Chaucer:
Ain't this the part in which the Brothers Volokh should conspire to teach us that Chaucer used "ain't"?
7.24.2007 11:52pm