Sociolinguistic Bias in AP Style: How News Media Deny African American Vernacular English Realities

By Andrew B. Keefe
2015, Vol. 7 No. 09 | pg. 2/4 |

4. AAVE Syntax

Apart from individual words and their referents, unique sentence structure also distinguishes AAVE from SAE. Five syntactic features of AAVE are at odds with the conventions of AP style—usage of habitual aspect auxiliaries, inflection of the copula ‘be’, multiple negation, possession constructions, and relative clause formation. These components of syntax inform how AAVE and SAE represent selfhood; by codifying the conventions of the latter, AP style further promotes sociolinguistic bias, transmitting reality and fulfilling psychological needs for SAE speakers exclusively.

AAVE habitual aspect auxiliaries indicate actions that occur constantly, usually, and/or ordinarily (Green, 35). For example, AAVE speakers may use the habitual aspect auxiliary ‘be’ to describe an action that occurs routinely (e.g., “I be running”). Green notes that SAE speakers often misinterpret the habitual ‘be’ as an incorrect, uninflected form of the copula ‘be’ (e.g., “I be running” as “I am running”), when in fact it serves a distinct, structured role for speakers. In AAVE, “I be running” means I am running regularly or every day, whereas “I am running” means I am running at the moment when I make the statement. AAVE habitual aspect auxiliaries resemble SAE auxiliaries (e.g., ‘will’, ‘can’, ‘should’, etc.), in that they do not inflect (e.g., “I can run,” “She can run,” *“She cans run”; “I be running,” “She be running,” *“She bes running”). Green identifies a variety of AAVE habitual aspect auxiliaries, all of which do not undergo inflection (e.g., remote past ‘been’, remote past ‘had been’, remote past perfect resultant state ‘had been done’, etc.) (46-7). AP style makes no allowances for these auxiliaries, regarding them as improper uses of the copula ‘be’.

Through habitual aspect auxiliaries, AAVE signals first person perspective, and thus selfhood, differently from SAE. Philosophy of mind literature suggests that whether a speaker employs first-person sentence structure determines self-consciousness (Wittgenstein, 1958; Shoemaker, 1968; Anscombe, 1981). In Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View, Baker (2000) states, “the first-person perspective is a necessary condition for any form of self-consciousness” (69). Speaking in first person indicates that the speaker can conceive of her thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and sensations as her own; self-consciousness is evident for neither the speaker nor the listener without first-person perspective, indicated by grammatical person. In demarcating grammatical person in SAE for phrases that involve habitual action, AP style may elucidate first-person subjectivity more clearly for SAE speakers than AAVE speakers. Accordingly, AP style effects sociolinguistic bias, relaying the reality of first person subjectivity, and hence self-consciousness, intelligibly for SAE speakers, but not AAVE speakers.

The following passage from an opinion piece in The Washington Post, a news publication that follows AP style, demonstrates how SAE news media disregard AAVE habitual aspect auxiliaries:

“I have a hard time answering people when they ask me what I do. It depends on the circumstances. If I’m at a party with my husband’s friends from college, I usually say I’m a writer and actor. If I’m having coffee with women from mom and baby yoga, I say I mostly stay at home with my son, but sometimes I work on creative projects. I tell my parents’ friends I’m a blogger” (Lazzaro, 2015).

If the piece had used AAVE habitual aspect auxiliaries it would read as follows:

“I be having a hard time answering people when they be asking me what I do. It depends on the circumstances. If I’m at a party with my husband’s friends from college, I usually be saying I’m a writer and actor. If I be having coffee with women from mom and baby yoga, I be saying I mostly be staying at home with my son, but sometimes I be working on creative projects. I be telling my parents’ friends I’m a blogger.”

While the passage clearly establishes first-person perspective in SAE, these sentences may be unintelligible to AAVE speakers because “I’m” and “I am” are ungrammatical in AAVE when preceding habitual action (e.g., “usually say,” “mostly stay,” etc.). Accordingly, the passage may not indicate first-person perspective for AAVE speakers, in which case it does not clearly represent selfhood, and transmits reality problematically for this audience.

AAVE and SAE also differ in that the former inflects the copula ‘be’ less than the latter. Green offers a chart of AAVE present tense inflections by grammatical person (37):

Chart 1

While SAE speakers inflect the copula ‘be’ to differentiate between nearly every possible pronominal subject of a sentence (e.g., “I am tall,” “you are tall,” “she is tall,” etc.), AAVE speakers only distinguish the first person singular subject (e.g., “I’m tall”) and third person neutral subject (e.g., “it’s tall”) from the other subjects (e.g., “we tall,” “she tall,” etc.). AP style and Webster’s regard AAVE’s copula usage as a negligible idiosyncrasy of a dialect.

With regards to representing habitual aspect and inflecting the copula ‘be’, SAE delineates selfhood more rigorously than AAVE. When marking habitual aspect, SAE requires speakers to inflect the copula ‘be’ and include the relevant pronoun, while AAVE only necessitates the latter. While SAE speakers must inflect the copula to specify a subject (e.g., “I am tall,” “you are tall,” etc.), AAVE only uses the copula for first person singular and third person singular sentences, and otherwise omits the copula altogether (Green, 40). Thus, relative to SAE, AAVE relies less on syntactic conventions that distinguish grammatical person and selfhood.

Orgad argues that mainstream news media rely on the self to represent the collective through individual stories. This is especially true in representations of the Global South: “From survivors of environmental disasters…to victims of domestic violence …stories of suffering feeding the contemporary global imagination are largely of individual struggle and empowerment achieved through self-responsibility and self-management” (74). She observes that this technique produces inaccurate depictions of social groups and inevitably annihilates the representation of the individual; the practice particularly marginalizes communities with histories of misrepresentation (172-3). As such, one can understand the sociolinguistic bias of mainstream news media productions in terms of both content and interpretative analyses. With respect to the former, AP style structures the syntax of news media language to distinguish the self such that the reality that productions relay is transmittable to SAE viewers, but not AAVE viewers. In regards to the latter, mainstream news media represent reality in terms of the self, thereby relaying it more intelligibly for SAE viewers, rather than AAVE viewers and other historically marginalized groups. Both analyses articulate AP style-directed news media’s role in supporting SAE dominance.

There are three other rule-governed syntactic features of AAVE that AP style delegitimizes and renders negligible colloquial speech. The first of these is AAVE speakers’ practice of multiple negation, or the use of two or more negators (e.g., ‘don’t’, ‘no’, ‘ain’t’, etc.) in one negative sentence: “In multiple negation constructions, negation can be marked on auxiliaries (e.g., don’t) and indefinite nouns such as anybody (nobody) and anything (nothing)… ‘I ain’t never seen nobody preach under announcements’” (Green, 77). Green explains that the negative meaning persists in sentences with an even number of negators. AP style regards double negation as incorrect grammar and explicitly restricts usage of ‘ain’t’, which it describes as a “dialectical or nonstandard contraction” (Associated Press, “Ain’t”). The stylebook directs news media to use the contraction only in special circumstances, such as a source’s quotation. Thus, multiple negation and ‘ain’t’ are notable features of AAVE negation that AP style generally rejects.

News media that follow AP style similarly invalidate AAVE possession constructions. While SAE demarcates the possessor of a noun phrase by attaching –’s or employing specific possessive pronouns, in AAVE nominal pronouns or bare proper nouns suffice, as Green notes:

“…word order is sufficient for marking the possessive relationship in AA[V]E, so possessive -’s need not be present…

   b. Sometime Rolanda bed don’t be made up.
   c. That’s the church responsibility…
   e. If they wanna go out and do something else with it, that’s they business” (102-3).

Thus in AAVE, genitive contexts do not require particular pronouns or suffixes as they do in SAE. Conversely, AP style explicitly charts the appropriate manner of expressing possession for nearly every class of noun, including “plural nouns not ending in s,” “plural nouns ending in s,” “nouns plural in form, singular in meaning” and “singular proper names ending in s” (Associated Press, “Apostrophe”). Each possessive structure either requires implementation of a possessive pronoun or some apostrophe structure with or without ‘s’. Thus, AP style makes no allowance for possession forms found in AAVE syntax, prioritizing SAE forms instead.

Finally, the sociolinguistic bias towards SAE within AP style persists in relative clause formations. Green observes that relative pronouns used to link dependent and independent clauses are as nonobligatory in AAVE as possessive markers; speakers can often omit them entirely:

“‘Ø’ indicates that there is no overt relative pronoun: a. There are many mothers [Ø don’t know where their children are]…

   b. It’s a whole lot of people [Ø don’ wanna go to hell]…
   c. You the one [Ø telling me]…
   d. You’re the one [Ø ain’t got no church]…” (90).

Green distinguishes between overt and covert relative pronouns, suggesting that, unlike in SAE, the latter is common in AAVE. AP style is clear that this syntactic style is inappropriate: “Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name. Use that for essential clauses, important to the meaning of a sentence, and without commas” [Associated Press, “That, Which (Pronouns)”]; “Who is the pronoun used for references to human being and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase” (Associated Press, “Who, Whom”). AP style plainly requires that news media productions include relative pronouns in sentences with relative clauses. Like AP style guidelines for negation and possession, this requirement ignores and delegitimizes AAVE syntax, favors SAE syntax, and thus promotes sociolinguistic bias.

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