My 2 hats, and false ideas about linguistics

Posted on December 15, 2017

As a freelance editor and a student at the University of Calgary, I have received endless hours of instruction on the “proper” way to put together sentences, use style guides, quote sources and write papers.

(If you want to know more about editing, check out Anne Louise Mahoney’s post Editing matters: Helping your text to shine.)

But after my first Linguistics 201 lecture, I knew I had arrived at the opposite point of view. And it was a perfect fit!

Linguists don’t tell people how to speak

In my linguistic studies, I have to remove the editor’s hat (think Colin Firth in “Genius”) and replace it with another (think George Harrison in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”).

Those who haven’t studied linguistics might have the false idea that linguists are only concerned with “correct” speech. But the specific “grammar” rules that you learned in school (about pronoun use or subject-verb agreement, for example) have nothing to do with the study of linguistics. And that makes it so much more fun!

Linguists describe how people speak

Linguists are interested in describing language use, rather than dictating it. They study the differences in the way groups of people speak and the language structures that underlie those differences.

For example, British English speakers have the ability to use the phrase “at the weekend,” when Canadian English speakers would normally say “on the weekend.” We can say that Canadian English speakers can’t use “at” in front of “the weekend”; it’s ungrammatical.

But take a short swim across the pond, and the Canadian preposition “on” seems very out of place; British speakers don’t say “on the weekend,” so for them this expression is ungrammatical.

Linguistics includes different fields

Like other areas of study, linguistics has different streams:

  • sociolinguistics (how social factors affect language use)
  • first language acquisition (how young children learn to speak)
  • syntax (how words are put together to make sentences)

And these are just a few of the possible fields! But whatever linguistic field you study, the idea is to describe the differences and form theories about the underlying structures of language.

You might be thinking, Why bother studying something like this? The simple answer is we are all different, and that’s what makes linguistics (and humanity) so fascinating!

What do you think is the most interesting thing about the ways different groups of people use language? Share your opinions in the comments section!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Raina Schnider

Raina Schnider

Raina has always been interested in languages, writing and bilingualism. Her interest in Spanish and English led to her career as a freelance translator, editor and writer. She values strong leadership and community involvement and is a member of a number of volunteer boards and organizations.




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Submitted by Mindvalley on January 22, 2019, at 3:47

The blog post is really very good and contains a nice collection of data. You are doing a great job. Good luck on upcoming blog posts.‎

Submitted by Joy on March 15, 2021, at 7:04

Thanks for the great blog! I learned from it.