32

During a chat with a native English-speaking friend, he used the phrase "get on with it". I asked him about it, and he said it is a slang phrase. I looked it up online, and this phrase shows up on Urban Dictionary, so it seems my friend is correct in saying that it is slang. But who decides whether a word or phrase is proper English or slang?

  • 1
    Xiu, if you replace the word "correct" with "standard" this question might be better, I would say. – user114 Feb 13 '13 at 17:33
  • whereabouts on urban dictionary?: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=get%20on%20with%20it – mcalex Feb 13 '13 at 17:55
  • 3
    Pretty much everything on Urban Dictionary is not standard English. – Matt Feb 13 '13 at 18:18
  • 2
    I do! Seriously, for most purposes, all native speakers are qualified to say whether their terminology is "proper" English or "slang". If they use a word on the assumption that it's one or the other of those classifications, that's how they mean it to be understood. And in general, the people they're talking to will have the same understanding, even if certain people in certain other groups of native speakers might feel differently. – FumbleFingers Feb 13 '13 at 22:32
  • 1
    The OED documents usage, it doesn't determine it. – snailcar Aug 22 '13 at 3:04
24

SHORT VERSION:
Everybody, and nobody.

LONG VERSION:
Some countries have formal institutions which lay down rules which state what language is considered proper. English does not. All speakers and writers get a vote, and may exercise that vote as many times as they wish, both by speaking or writing themselves and by hearing and reading and approving what others speak or write. It is the most completely democratic institution in the world.

This is not to say there are no rules. There are, many thousands of them. Language at bottom is nothing but rules.

But the rules govern within larger and smaller communities. The rule which says that the present indicative form of the verb be which is used with the pronoun he shall be is is very widespread, but there are substantial communities where be is employed in some or all circumstances. By contrast, the community which maintains the rule that shall shall be employed in the first person where will is called for in the second and third persons is small and growing continually smaller. And the community which holds that my brother shall be referred to and addressed as Quid is quite small: probably only nine people.

So when you ask this question—which is an important one, and passionately debated—you must also specify ‘correct to whom’? To whom are you speaking or writing?

And when you have specified to whom you will have answered your question. They determine what is correct English.

  • I have to upvote this, since it says pretty much exactly the same as the comment I wrote before scrolling down to read it! – FumbleFingers Feb 13 '13 at 22:33
  • +1; but even when there is a formal institution that lays down supposed rules, the reality is that correctness works just the same way as in English. – ruakh Feb 14 '13 at 0:13
  • @ruakh Oh, yes. Academies can oppose innovation, restrain innovation, even in some circles suppress innovation; in some cases they may also encourage innovation; but in the end the writers will follow their own stars, and their readers'. – StoneyB Feb 14 '13 at 2:18
  • 1
    @SF The people you're talking to - the people asking the questions. – StoneyB Dec 16 '13 at 16:09
  • 1
    @SF. "Standardized" tests emerge from a specific speech community, and the grades reflect that community's standard of what is "correct" - which may or may not be what (just for instance) you or I regard as "correct". – StoneyB Dec 16 '13 at 16:49
15

Slang describes a special kind of vocabulary, so Get on with it isn’t slang. It’s an informal idiom, almost entirely confined to speech. The distinction you have in mind is perhaps not so much between what is slang and what is ‘correct English’ as between Standard English and nonstandard English. In the words of the linguist Richard Hudson,

Roughly speaking, Standard is the kind of English which is:

  1. written in published work
  2. spoken in situations where published writing is most influential, especially in education (and especially at University level)
  3. spoken “natively” (at home) by people who are most influenced by published writing - the “professional class” ’.

Another linguist, Peter Trudgill, has said

Standard English . . . is the variety of English normally used in writing, especially printing; it is the variety associated with the education system in all the English-speaking countries of the world, and is therefore the variety spoken by those who are often referred to as "educated people"; and it is the variety taught to non-native learners. But most native speakers of English in the world are native speakers of some nonstandard variety of the language, and English . . . can be described . . . as consisting of an autonomous standardised variety together with all the nonstandard varieties which are heteronomous with respect to it. Standard English is thus not the English language.

There is no body that says what is Standard English in the way that the French Academy says what is Standard French. If you want to know in what contexts a word or a construction is used a good dictionary will help, or perhaps a corpus-based usage guide such as 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage'. But there is really no substitute for paying attention to the way in which native English speakers and writers use the language in different situations.

  • ... but it was a native speaker who said it was a 'slang phrase' in the first place – mcalex Feb 13 '13 at 17:54
  • 2
    @mcalex Just because a native speaker says something is true, doesn't mean for sure it is. Even native speakers can be wrong :) "Get on with it" is not slang. It is an idiom, which is probably what your friend meant. – WendiKidd Feb 13 '13 at 18:05
  • @WendiKidd I understand that, I was merely pointing out a possible cause of confusion given the last sentence of the answer. ;-) – mcalex Feb 13 '13 at 18:12
  • 4
    @mcalex. Most native speakers don't know much about language, and the terms used to describe. But, if they've had a modest amount of education, they do have some idea of what to use when. – Barrie England Feb 13 '13 at 18:39
  • 1
    @mcalex: Their subconscious impressions of usage are generally correct. But their conscious applications of terms like "slang" are unreliable. If a speaker genuinely treats a word as slang -- e.g., using it only with friends -- then it's most likely slang. But if a speaker merely describes it as "slang", that doesn't mean as much. – ruakh Feb 14 '13 at 0:15
4
+50

My linguistics prof had a nice buzzword for the standard flavor of a language. He called it the socio-economically preferred dialect.

Who decides what is or isn't in the socio-economically preferred dialect is, why, the socio-economic elite which practices and promotes that dialect, through its media and various institutions.

There isn't a single such a dialect of English because there are numerous English-speaking societies in the world, with their own socio-economic elites with their own dialects.

If we were to identify something as Standard English for the entire world, it would have to be some kind of cmmon subset of all those dialects. Unfortunately, one of the implications would be that some objects would be left without names. For instance petrol appears in the socio-economically preferred dialect used in Britain, but in America's equivalent dialect it is gasoline. So in an international Standard English that is understood by everyone, there can be no word for a highly refined-fuel for spark-ignited internal combustion engines.

  • "The socio-economically preferred dialect": absolutely! Language is socially judged everywhere; language is culture, not just grammar rules. But when we teach English as a foreign language (EFL), we teach both petrol & gasoline: the international standard cannot afford to be exclusive. – user264 Feb 14 '13 at 1:40
  • 3
    Identifying dialects is a nice way to escape the prescriptive versus descriptive trap. An utterance is not correct or not; but rather, which dialect does it belong to, if any. – Kaz Feb 14 '13 at 1:43
  • This is closely related to the idea of a prestige dialect. As Wikipedia says, "the most prestigious dialect is likely to be considered the standard language, though there are some notable exceptions to this rule". – snailcar Feb 15 '13 at 0:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy