There's No Wrong Way to Write -- Or In Defense of "Baby Daddy"

I, like millions and millions of other English speakers both native and non, can generally understand words and phrases that haven't come out of a grammar textbook.
Publish date:
August 12, 2013
writing, elitism, language, grammar, accents, colloquialisms, speaking, snobs

In my everyday-to-everyday life, I am a technical editor in a field that depends on precision of language. We enforce the old-fashioned difference in usage between "that" (use with restrictive clauses, don't use a comma) and "which" (use with nonrestrictive clauses, use a pair of commas to set off the clause). We wage kind of epic battles over the use of parallel structure in bulleted lists. We have heated debates about whether the stems of those bulleted lists should be fragments or complete sentences.

Millions of dollars of equipment and people's lives depend on our product being clearly and easily understood so, you know, I'll own that. In that setting. But elsewhere? I don't honestly give two shits about whether or not your Tweet conforms to "standard" English unless you are paying me to do so.

That's because I, like millions and millions of other English speakers both native and non, can generally understand words and phrases that haven't come out of a grammar textbook. I'm not just talking about context clues for words that might not be familiar or for errors in grammatical construction; I'm talking about the way language flows in different accents and dialects, the way language gets repurposed in common usage.

My degree is in Creative Writing, but I took a bunch of Lit Theory courses just for fun. And one of the concepts that made a lot of sense there was the idea of "discourse communities." That's really just a fancy label for a group of people who all understand each other. Discourse communities can use jargon (think about the office tech folks shooting the shit about words that I have no idea what they mean) and linguistic shortcuts and colloquialisms to communicate that don't make much sense to outsiders. But those discourse communities are still totally valid; they aren't doing language wrong.

That's because language is flexible and adaptive. People developed a grammar (a bunch of different grammars) in an effort to describe usage but that usage continues to change and bend and melt all over the place. That's why we see some nouns turn into verbs (Xerox is a company name that is commonly used to mean the action of photocopying) and other words totally change shape for no apparent reason ("feelings" into "feels" with no nuance that those outside the Tumblr community could originally detect).

That's AMAZING, right? I mean, that we communicate with each other at all is kind of a magic trick. Folks like to dismiss semantics as being nitpicky, but semantics is really all we have to rely on when we're trying to get what is in our individual head into another individual head. That language is fluid enough to respond to the various ways we need to use it is marvelous.

Yeah, I'm getting all sappy and mushy about language; I think it's the closest I come to feeling religious about anything. That is why I am so very opposed to linguistic and grammatical prescriptivism.

Is that not where you thought I was going with this? No worries, I will explain.

A few weeks ago, an IHTM about how it kind of sucks to be a single mom was published. There was some discussion of the topic but what caught my attention was the debate about the term "baby daddy." Specifically, a commenter told the anonymous writer that the commenter was taken out of the story by the repetition of "baby daddy" -- and went so far as to suggest an editor change it. Other's chimed in and suddenly there was a raging debate about the elitism inherent in insisting everyone write the same way versus the "right" way to be a professional writer.

Y'all, I can't get with that. In no small part because I address all of you as "y'all" on a regular basis. It's a collective plural pronoun, common in the South of the US but widespread in its usage because English lacks a distinct second person plural pronoun. No one has ever come at me and told me that I am alienating an audience by using what is still a feature of Southern dialect.

And, in fact, no one came at these other writers who referred to their "baby daddy" -- here, here, or here. That's because "baby daddy" is a term in common usage in the U.S. -- and the meaning is well enough understood that when First Lady Michelle Obama used the term to jokingly refer to her husband President Barack Obama, a media shitstorm ignited. It is generally understood that a "baby daddy" is not usually a husband or a boyfriend; it's a sperm donor, someone who fathered a child and isn't involved in a positive way.

So, if it's such a common term, why did so many people object so strongly to it? I think it's because the term originated in black communities. It is, in some small way, a term that came from people speaking African American Vernacular English -- a recognized variety of American English. Despite how common AAVE is -- and how long it's been recognized -- there are a whole lot of people who cannot with the way AAVE doesn't conform to "standard" English. Do I have to point out how much racism is involved in trying to invalidate the way some black people talk?

We learn to write at school, usually. Our education levels -- and our reading preferences -- are often a strong influence on our writing style. But so are our communities. Many people write the same way they speak unless they make a deliberate effort to academic it up or be more formal.

I don't know about anyone else, but I went to grade school in Cherokee County, GA, in the 1980s. And I got a really rigorous education in the idea that there are different writing styles for different situations. There were right ways and wrong ways to present ideas in different places -- and if you didn't know the right ways, no one was going to listen to you.

It was a practical education in the way elitism functions as a gate barring the door so that "wrong" people can't get through. I was educated to be upwardly mobile, to know the right pass phrases. But make no mistake -- the insistence on putting words together in a specific way, the insistence on linguistic conformity is still doing its job of keeping folks down.

The other night (and this happens basically every night), a friend made a sarcastic remark to a jerk on Twitter. His response? That her words weren't standard English so she must not be very smart.

On the one hand, writing is about communication. It's about reaching an intended audience. When I write here, I know that I am writing for a lot of different kinds of people from lots of different places and ways of life and philosophies. I know we're going to disagree on some things, and I know we aren't all going to like each other. I know that and I calculate the risk of that, because writers want to reach people, after all.

But I also want you to hear me, to know who I am, and part of that is using the language of my discourse community -- it's letting you hear some of my accent, the one that usually only comes out when I've had three drinks in a short period of time.

And when I'm reading, I keep that even more fully in mind.

In an academic setting, yeah, there are certain conventions that I usually expect to see followed. But on a website that is designed to highlight the unique voices of people from all over with different experiences and backgrounds (not to mention, like, Twitter), I'd be frankly astonished if there weren't words and phrases that were new or different or somehow just outside my norm. Hell, I'd be disappointed if that weren't the case!

Perhaps what we, as readers, need to be reminded of sometimes is that reading is not always meant to be a comfortable activity. We read for many purposes -- so, sure, sometimes we read to have our own worldviews reconfirmed. But how boring would it be if that were our only purpose?

It's honestly amazing and astonishing to me how people can use language in different ways to get their thoughts and feelings across. The Internet is not the Ivory Tower -- nor should it be. So maybe the next time there's a word or phrase that you don't find professional, it's worth taking a moment to consider what the use of it is telling you about the writer -- and why you make those assumptions.

Maybe it's time for us as readers to be more active. Because, hey, if we can't handle being part of more than one discourse community, maybe we are the ones doing reading wrong.