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This is really a question about 'informal English', 'correct English', 'standard English', etc. Living in Scotland, I am aware that as well as having 'Scots words' the grammatical constructions can also be different.

I would say that 'slang' extends to grammar as well as vocabulary. Slang in the sense of colloquial English.

I have a classic example, the title of one of Robert Burns poems.

A Man's a Man for A' That

A man is a man for all that.

That is not standard English. Even though the words are all English.

I am trying to think of another example:

"Yes,We have no bananas"


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As far as the Wikipedia article suggests, "Yes! We have no bananas." isn't slang, because it means that we have no bananas. –  Matt Эллен Sep 20 '12 at 11:20
I disagree with the down/closevotes (none of which have an associated comment in justification). OP hasn't done himself any favours by citing fixed expressions/idiomatic usage/quotations in a question focussing on "slang", but the fact that slang is more associated with non-standard vocabulary/semantics rather than non-standard grammar is hardly an intuitive or indisputable "fact". –  FumbleFingers Sep 20 '12 at 15:33
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closed as not constructive by MετάEd, tchrist, Jasper Loy, Carlo_R., Daniel Sep 26 '12 at 18:23

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3 Answers

The best treatment I know of is Rosamund Moon's Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach. This is available over the internet, though you might be better googling an excerpt "many earlier, more traditional models focus" then downloading from docstoc. The author covers 'idioms and non-idiom FEIs', 'ill-formed FEIs' and much besides. The section on 'ill-formed FEIs' covers those expressions where the grammar is unusual - some might even say dodgy. She looks at frequency of occurrence; I can't remember if she offers breakdowns by region or register.

Whilst I'm a confirmed adherent to the principle championed in the statement you go on to quote:

... semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it must be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable. ...,

I believe that this is true only for some 'fixed expressions including idioms'. Some (especially more transparent) FEIs do admit of analysis; indeed Moon has sections discussing 'variations', 'free realisations', 'schemas' 'exploitations' and 'insertions'.

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All no doubt true, but idioms and slang aren't the same thing. –  Barrie England Sep 20 '12 at 12:10
Yes - as I suggested, a look through the examples of ill-formed FEIs given in Moon's work is necessary to discover the (relatively few) slang examples. Give somebody what for, go for broke, on the make, on the up and up, to go (fast food), swear blind, and so long! may qualify. And when one reads the scholarly work, one finds that idioms and idioms aren't necessarily the same thing! There is also The Grammar of Slang by Juachoerin, which examines the 'new word - and / or new grammar?' debate re slang. The slang 'And she's like, "...' construction is covered. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 20 '12 at 23:19
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Slang may be found in colloquial English, but it isn’t a defining feature of spoken English and the examples you give aren’t really slang at all. Slang is on the whole a lexical feature of language rather than a grammatical one. In ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’, David Crystal defines it as 1. Informal, nonstandard vocabulary. 2. The jargon of a special group. In his ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’, R L Trask describes is as

Informal and often ephemeral forms. We all use our language in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Most obviously, we speak differently in formal contexts and in informal contexts. Especially when speaking informally, we often take pleasure in resorting to slang: informal but colourful words and expressions.

In the Introduction to ‘Chambers Slang Dictionary’, Jonathon Green characterizes it thus:

Slang is the language that says ‘no’. No to piety, to religion, to ideology and all its permutations, to honour, nobility, patriotism and their kindred infantilisms. It is forever Falstaff, never the Prince. Of humanity, it is the most resolutely human. Unlike its Standard English ‘cousin’ – which, like slang, is just one more variety of the greater English language, albeit of an alternative register – its words are coined at society’s lower depths, and make their way aloft. With sublime contempt for the prevailing liberalisms, it is sexist, racist, nationalist, prejudiced and welcoming of the crassest stereotyping. It is bawdy, scabrous, scatological, cruel, arrogant, boastful and cowardly.

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Agreed slang is on the whole a lexical, not grammatical feature. Also semantic (bad, wicked, cool are ordinary words, but they have special meanings when used as slang). As An introduction to English slang says, slang grammar is mostly just standard grammar. Maybe the way slang sometimes uses adjectives/adverbs qualifies as a "grammar" issue - "I'm real gone, man", or "I'm total hungry" (that second one total unfamiliar to me, I admit). –  FumbleFingers Sep 20 '12 at 13:52
@FumbleFingers: I think I'd regard those as examples of nonstandard grammar rather than slang. –  Barrie England Sep 20 '12 at 14:49
I tend to agree. It's starting to look as if OP's proposition (slang is special vocabulary, not grammar) is pretty much the right of it. But then I have to ask myself: "Is that a slang usage, or just non-standard grammar?" –  FumbleFingers Sep 20 '12 at 15:23
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These expressions are a little bit like phrasal verbs. That on their own they make very little sense, but they are understood by custom and usage.


This semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it must be taken as a whole. In other words, the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable.[1]

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So you have found the answer to your question, then? Is your question still open? –  Kris Sep 20 '12 at 10:46
Q: "Is 'Slang' is a special kind of vocabulary, not of grammar?" A: "These expressions are a little bit like phrasal verbs." I, uh. Er. What? –  RegDwigнt Sep 20 '12 at 11:17
"On their own they make very little sense, but they are understood by custom and usage" is true of every aspect of language. This has nothing to do with slang. –  StoneyB Sep 20 '12 at 11:55
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