I've always been fuzzy on disinterested versus uninterested, so I thought I'd post a blog entry and clear it up for both you and me. Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary reports an interesting usage history for these two words (found under the entry for disinterested).

Prescriptive grammar snobs will scold you and tell you that disinterested means unbiased and uninterested means bored. M-W tells us this is not entirely accurate. The two words used to have the opposite meanings. During the 18th century they swapped, taking on the senses I listed above. Early in the 20th century, the bored sense of disinterested experienced a revival, which is now attacked as "incorrect."

This is as good a forum as any to express my opinion on prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. When you're being told rules you have to follow or else get labeled as wrong and ignorant, you're experiencing prescriptive grammar. Linguists, on the other hand, seek to develop a descriptive grammar, which sets down the rules you unconsciously follow as a native speaker. Some utterances that are grammatical in descriptive grammar are ungrammatical in prescriptive (splitting infinitives and ending with prepositions are two examples).

Dialects are not "wrong." They have their own grammars; they have coherent rule sets. Social bias is what labels a certain dialect as ungrammatical. Black English/African Vernacular/Ebonics is not agrammatical; however, it fails to comply with the rules of another dialect, SAE (Standard American English). If you'd like a good job in the US, you'd do well to learn the latter, not because it is "right," but because employers think it is. And this is at the heart of all the hubbub about getting Ebonics accepted as a "language" (I assert that it is a dialect instead). The real debate is (should have been) to get Ebonics acknowledged as equally valid as SAE, to make educators and the rest of the public stop telling black kids they're wrong and bad for the way they talk, and to get them to teach SAE as a second dialect, useful for getting along in mainstream white society.

Likewise, ASL (American Sign Language) (and all the other natural sign languages, for that matter) is not agrammatical. Deaf kids should be in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, not speech classes or, worse yet, special ed/remedial/mentally retarded classes.

If you're interested in learning more on this topic, a college-level intro to linguistics class will address descriptive grammar, as will a text book for such a class. Look for LING 1 or 101. Also, you can chat with me about it further.

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