Students studying linguistics and other language sciences for the first time often have misconceptions about what they are about and what they can offer them. They may think that linguists are authorities on what is correct and what is incorrect in a given language. But linguistics is the science of language; it treats language and the ways people use it as phenomena to be studied much as a geologist treats the earth. Linguists want to figure out how language works. They are no more in the business of making value judgments about people's language than geologists are in the business of making value judgments about the behavior of the earth.
But language is a cultural phenomenon and we all have deep-seated, cultural ideas about what it is and how we ought to use it, so knowing where to begin in studying it scientifically is not a trivial matter at all. Issues arise that would not if we were geologists figuring out how to study earthquakes or the structure of the earth's crust. For this reason, before we dive into the study of language, we will need to examine some of the biases that we all have concerning language and to set some ground rules for how we are going to proceed. Because there is more than one way to begin, it will also be useful to establish a basic stance to guide us. Finally, because human language is an enormously complex subject, the book will focus on a narrow range of topics and themes; there will be no pretense of covering the field in anything like a complete fashion. This first chapter is designed to deal with these preliminary issues. But first, you will need to know about the various conventions that I will be using in the book.