Say it ain’t so, y’all

Ronda Rich's picture

You knew it was going to happen. You had to know there would come a time when some reader somewhere felt compelled to give me a grammar lesson.

I’m only surprised it took this long.

A reader, putting aside her Southern manners, wrote to, in her words, “chide” me for inappropriate grammar and warn me that her former English teacher in Atlanta, Ga., would give me a “big fat F.”

Mainly, I am surprised that I was upbraided for grammatical structure in someone else’s quote rather than my own prose. That is the most astounding. Heaven knows I do enough wrong on my own.

I did minor in English in college, though I was much better on the composition and literature side than I was in the grammar. However, I majored in journalism so I adhere to those rules rather than following the Queen’s English and the demands of perfect structure. Therefore, I quote people how they say it. Of course, I could do plenty of correcting of my own sentences, if I so chose.

Minors and majors aside, I am a storyteller. That is to say that I tell stories in the language of ordinary Southerners, often those from the rural landscapes who still follow the cadences of the Scotch-Irish, calling Irish potatoes “Arsh” and foreigners “furrieners” because from wherever they came, they traveled “fur.”

I chose to be authentic rather than grammatically perfect. It’s more interesting.

For years, I’ve faced this struggle with New York editors, particularly the ones raised in Connecticut and educated in Ivy League schools. I have fought more North-South battles than the troops of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee put together.

One Yankee editor took me to task when I wrote, “He loved to aggravate me.” She marked through it with a red line and replaced “aggravate” with “annoy.”

I wrote a strong note in the margin and declared, “In the South, we aggravate. We don’t annoy.”

There is a legendary story of an acclaimed Southern author who received an edited manuscript back from her publisher. She had written about someone’s “double wide.” In the margin, the editor asked, “Double wide what?”

With my last book, the editing over typical Southern language reached such a fever pitch of ridiculousness that I asked my editor, “Don’t y’all have any Southerners up there in New York City who can edit?”

I’ll take a Tuscaloosa editor over a Yale graduate anytime and praise the good Lord for my wonderful fortune. In fact, I once had a Mississippi-raised editor on a book published in New York and we got along like a house on fire. We spoke a common language.

It’s this simple: we Southerners have our own language. Though what worries me is that outside pressures such as Yankee editors and stiff grammatical types are pushing us, even trying to embarrass us, into changing our language to become what they perceive as correct.

I’ll have none of it.

If we clean up our Southern phraseology and sweep into perfect Americanized grammar and language, we’ll become homogenized. That means the time could come when it would be impossible to tell a gallon of New England milk from a gallon of Southern buttermilk. It would all taste – and sound – the same.

The true language of Southerners is beautiful, unique and, above all, interesting. It is what has made the South’s people into great wordsmiths of songs, stories and books. We can’t abandon it for it has served us too well for too long.

Here’s what worries me: It is to be expected that New York-grown editors are going to chastise us for our language but it is a sad commentary when our own people are turning against us.

I declare. I think some of us might have gotten above our raising.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” She lives in Gainesville, Ga. Email her at]

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