Colloquialisms Part II: Slang
Friday, February 01, 2013 Word Choice
By Nathan Sacks, Writing Consultant
Language is always evolving, and this is just as true of slang, a general term for words and terminology that do not fit certain definitions of “standard writing.” As with clichés (another category of colloquialisms that I focused on in my previous post), slang is sometimes difficult for us tutors to diagnose in writing because of constantly-shifting attitudes about what should and should not be considered acceptable language. This is true of APA as well, which requires a clear, direct style that allows few opportunities for creative expression through slang. According to the APA handbook’s sixth edition, precision is “essential in scientific writing; when you refer to a person or persons, choose words that are accurate, clear, and free from bias” (p. 71).
What makes slang not part of these standards for objectivity is that, by definition, only certain groups of people use certain types of slang. For instance, today’s modern alphabet of smiley-face emoticons may be common parlance among teenagers, but they make less sense to an older individual like myself (though there will certainly be exceptions on both ends of the age spectrum). Conversely, certain ethnic, racial, or gendered terms that were common in past academic writing are no longer acceptable, because by modern cultural standards those words are no longer sensitive or bias-free.
The central conceit of APA word choice is to strive for the most clear, direct, formal language that can convey academic arguments to the most amount of people. It is possible for this tendency to be self-defeating. Some scientific papers are so overloaded with formalized academic jargon that they are impossible to read or understand. Others so deliberately distance themselves from any possibility of bias that this distance ends up diluting their arguments. Earlier, I defined slang as the term for whatever does not fit specific definitions of “standard writing.” But even this platonic ideal of “standard academic writing” is problematic—who should decide what words are and are not acceptable, as well as what and what does not qualify as slang?
As we know, sometimes rules in language change significantly over a small amount of time. For instance, consider the gradual acceptance of the word alright in our modern English lexicon. When I was younger, the word alright was an unacceptable misspelling of all right, which by rule was two words. However, as blogger Grammar Girl noted here, some dictionaries and writing resources have come to tacitly accept alright as its own word with a separate, distinct meaning. How did this happen? When enough people collectively misspelled the word, the misspelling became a standard part of the modern lexicon. What used to be incorrect spelling becomes slang, and by that same process, what was once slang may someday become standard academic practice.
To that end, also consider the APA’s recent change over the number of spaces between sentences. In the fifth edition, one space after a period was standard; in the current edition, both one and two spaces are acceptable. Was the APA just buckling to modern computer user trends, or were they making an effort to be more inclusive and open to linguistic evolution? Possibly, they were trying to do both. In any case, this proves that APA language is a language like any other, not because of its strict rules and word choice guidelines, but because of its capacity to grow, change, and reflect current ideas in writing and thinking.
Who knows? When the APA seventh edition rolls around, maybe the organization will lift another linguistic embargo, like the one on contractions (ain’t, can’t, won’t). Stranger things have happened, and will continue to happen, to the English language.