Noting ‘non-standard’ English troubles some readers

Readers tell me often that they think The Kansas City Star should avoid slang, jargon, abbreviations and — most of all — improper English in reporting the news. Most of the time, I’m with them.

I think that’s especially true when it comes to neologism and terminology unique to certain professions. The average reader doesn’t know the meaning of a restaurant being “in the weeds” (extremely busy) or the job of a “74 Delta” (a military chemical operations specialist). Keep things simple and direct, people tell me.

When it comes to slang and dialects, things get more complex. I don’t think I can name a single person I’ve ever met who doesn’t use the word “yeah,” yet I hear from readers who simply don’t want to see it in print, even in direct quotes. I remember one a few years ago who objected to a headline in the FYI section that read, “Truman Museum? Yeah, gotta get out there sometime.” “Editors need to set a higher standard,” she said.

On the other hand, there’s a good counter-argument that these informal usages are an undeniable part of everyone’s daily life, and journalism shouldn’t always shy away from them. But here, you have to pick and choose where it’s appropriate. Straight news about City Hall or crime statistics? Not a good fit.

A caller last week was upset at an item at the top of the front page of the Sports section on Jan. 24: “Who dat who has New Orleans so excited? It’s quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints.”

“Are you kidding me? Is that a reference to illiterate negro children?” he asked, sarcastically referring to the uproar over Harry Reid’s recently revealed comments about President Barack Obama’s use of “negro dialect.” “This is ridiculous racism,” he said.

I absolutely understand his sensitivity, but this case is complex. Saints fans are well familiar with the chant heard at every game: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?”

Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the chant has been popular since at least 1983, but its roots go back much further. He cites the song “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd,” with lyrics by black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, first appearing in the late 1890s.

Reader Ronni Patriquin Clark read a blog post I made about the chant, and offered further insight: “The term had a racial connotation when it began, but it has become part of the vernacular of New Orleanians, both black and white.”

There are also times when a speaker can use non-standard English to a very purposeful, powerful effect. Remember Jesse Jackson’s 2000 exhortation to “Keep out the Bushes.” He knew exactly what he was doing, employing dialect for a clever, memorable slogan.

Informal language can enliven dull writing, but readers demand that it fit the situation appropriately.

This column was originally published in The Kansas City Star on January 30, 2010.

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