Using the Vernacular: an Editor's Musings
The cartoon above, besides being pretty funny, made this retired English professor think, after having a hearty chuckle, “who would even think of doing such a thing?”
People who are new to academic writing, that’s who. First-year college students, usually American, and taking their first composition courses and who, bless their hearts, do not know the difference between college composition (learning academic writing for research, which is what they will be doing for the next four years) and creative writing (a course for people who wish to become writers or teach writing). I recall first-day writing prompts that, like, literally read like they were texting me about their bff or bae with “ur” for “your” or “you’re,” and “2” for “two.” Needless to say, my second-day class lecture was always based on why we do not write the way we speak – or, in other words, why we do not use the vernacular in academic writing.
According to our friends at the Google Dictionary, vernacular, is a noun formed from the Latin verna, for “home-born slave.” Eventually, it became vernaculus, meaning “domestic” or “native” and sometime in the 17th century, English-speaking people added the -ar, making a word that described “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region.” (It also has an application in the architectural world but that’s a digression I do not care to make.)
My personal vernacular is based on the language of my people, who happen to be western New Yorkers (a tribe completely different from New Yorkers from New York City). For example, the sandwich that is a sliced length of bread filled with sliced meats, vegetables, and condiments has always been a “sub” (short for submarine, for its shape), while in New England, it is a “grinder,” which is a “hoagie” in Philadelphia, a “po’ boy” in Louisiana, or “hero” in New York City. In Vietnam, it’s banh mi; in Sicily it’s muffuletta.
The vernacular is the code we use to signal the tribe we identify with. That tribe is usually geographically-based, depending on where we grew up learning the language. So when we communicate within the tribe, our messages can be short, like texts or memes, and meant for an intimately-connected audience. But using the vernacular can get down and dirty within this intimate connection. We use it regularly to describe the basest of human functions – both physical and emotional – because we can be frank and open within our tribe. We are comfortable enough to say “I shit you not” to our families and friends when we really mean “I’m being honest with you.”
So the answer is that we just don’t use the vernacular in academic writing. Academic writing is a code that sends a signal to other academics that the paper has been well-researched, using robust sources, with no plagiarism. Academic writing presupposes – or should presuppose - ethos, if done correctly, so it is totally unnecessary to state that one is being honest.
In short, heck no, you can’t say “I shit you not” in an English essay. But whenever you’re in your tribe, go ahead and knock yourself out.