The New Usage Guide … Television!

All the students in my MA course Testing Prescriptivism had to write two blogposts. So here is Jasper Spierenburg’s second one:

With statistics showing that the average American watches over five hours of television a day, it is hard for prescriptivists to argue against the fact that television is looked at more often than the inside of a usage guide. However, what if it is possible to combine a usage guide and television?

Scripted television shows try to comment on everyday affairs because this creates a link with the audience. A popular series like Game of Thrones is referred to in various shows like Community, New Girl and Parks and Recreation. However, it is not just actual events and character-references that make their appearance in scripted television but also language. An easy way to create humour in SitComs seems to be by showing mistakes in language use by certain characters in the series. When Modern Family’s Claire (played by Julie Bowen) makes a poster to try and stop a speeding neighbour, it doesn’t take long for her family to comment on the message that it actually conveys instead. She wanted the poster to read “slow down” and “your neighbors” to be the senders of this message:

Claire herself is also prone to comment on the faulty language use of others, as the episode titled Fears shows us in a conversation of her daughter that she interrupts:

Haley: And she was, like …

Claire: Like

Haley: Well if you don’t wear it, then you can’t play. And then I was, like, that’s fine by me.

Claire: Honey, like.

Haley: And then she was, like, “Well, if you don’t play–“

Claire: Like! Like!

Haley: Mom! Stop! Stop saying “like” all the time.

Claire: You’re embarrassing me! Stop it! Like, like, like, aah! Hmm.

Like, a word that has inspired much debate and is even dealt with on this blog, seems to be commented on here by Claire simply because it is used too much by her daughter.

It isn’t hard when simply watching any other SitCom to notice that these comments on language use are quite frequent and are almost always meant to have a comical effect. Especially when a so-called laugh track is added, the audience will realise that it is wrong to use these language features in these ways and that using them will not only make you look stupid but will also make the people around you laugh at you. Being the butt of a joke is usually not the goal in any normal conversation and I expect that people would want to avoid this whenever possible. This of course then suggests that, simply to not be the centre of attention, we should use language correctly and SitComs can show us the way how to do just that.

Most SitComs aren’t rated PG13 or higher and are thus available to children at an early age. A question that comes to mind is whether this might have any effect on them. Will showing them that something is wrong actually change their usage when it comes to these language features? What do you think? Can television succeed in changing our language use where usage guides have failed?

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