Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Value of the Vagaries

There was a discussion recently on the Playground about Americanisms being introduced into British English. I'll not go to much into the point of the discussion itself - some stupid rant on the subject on the BBC website by some opinionated fool. Additionally, one of his complaints was a word originally found in Kipling, making it British, not American, so I guess he didn't do his research either. Anyway, if you want to know about the original discussion you can go and find it, that's not the point of this post. A little way into that discussion someone linked to the following video:

Which prompted me to a certain amount of thought on the subject of language and pedantry, which is what this post  is about.
In the audio clip that video was built around, Stephen Fry makes some rather considerable criticism of people who are overly pedantic about grammar, punctuation, etc. Since I have considerable respect for Stephen Fry and feel he makes a lot of sense in what he says there, and yet can myself be rather pedantic about SPG, this is somewhat concerning for me, and forces me to potentially re-evaluate my own views on this subject.
My own views are somewhat closer to this:

(Which someone also linked in that thread, and which set me off watching through David Mitchell's Soapbox, which I'll probably blog about at a later date)
Now I do not intend by writing this blog post to try and absolve myself of elitist intellectual snobbery. I acknowledge that there is a vein of that running through my personality. But I want to get my views straightened out.

While Stephen Fry in that clip suggests that it is rare in his experience, clarity is certainly a point. As has been so famously observed in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, misuse of punctuation can drastically change one's meaning. To avoid this potential confusion, certain rules and conventions have been set in place. Now, one might say that this moves into the territory SF speaks of towards the end of the clip - that certain language is fit for certain circumstances. To be sure, it is highly unlikely that a grocer's misplaced apostrophe will cause a lack of clarity as to his meaning, so why should we care? I find it difficult to give an entirely satisfactory answer to that question. For me personally, it's simply because it jars for me to observe such errors. I might argue that neglecting punctuation errors where they don't matter is the thin end of the wedge, that it'll just get worse and worse. Though that's unlikely, because as I mentioned, it has substantial use for ensuring clarity, so if it were removed, we would need something else to fill that gap. Of course, if some such linguistic mechanism were to be devised, perhaps punctuation could be dropped, and this would not be a bad thing. So long as it works.

But I digress. I doubt that neglecting to nitpick in cases where the meaning is clear would lead to the downfall of punctuation as we know it. So is there a rational reason for me to bother with it, or is it simply my gut feeling that this is wrong aggravating me?
I think the issue is that to which David Mitchell calls attention in the second linked video. It's because it implies a lack of effort, and a lack of caring. Whatever SF may have to say, pedantic nitpicker though I am, I love my language. I revel in it, with all its ridiculous eccentricities. Indeed, in the above-mentioned Playground thread on Americanisms, I stated my view that while I may joke that the British versions are Right and the American ones are Wrong, my actual view is that neither is inherently better, I personally prefer the British ones, due in no small part to the fact that I was raised with them, but that both should continue to exist. Such differences add to the eccentric charm of the English language for me.
Anyway, I digress again. The point is, I care about my language. I like to see it used well. And the implication of someone randomly littering a page with simple errors is that they don't care. And that offends my sensibilities.

This goes for spelling as well as punctuation, and also for simple grammatical things like capital letters beginning sentences and proper nouns. It takes little extra effort, and notably increases the readability of what you have written in my experience. Now eccentric spelling is more forgiveable, particularly since the rules of spelling in English are rather eccentric in and of themselves. However in this case, while I am willing to be more forgiving of errors, I do nonetheless still maintain the view that people should at least try, rather than acknowledge their lack of spelling ability and just give up. In this case I will use the slippery slope argument - the more such spellings, currently viewed as 'incorrect', are used, the more likely they are to become accepted. And these spellings are typically simplifications, of which I personally do not approve. Now this is getting into my own personal feelings I suppose, rather than any truly rational argument, but I will fight to the bitter linguistic end for my eccentric spellings. I suppose in this I am guilty of some of what Stephen Fry says. I dislike it because I feel it to be ugly, because I'm so much more accustomed to the current standards.
On the other hand, I could call clarity again, since no matter what, I don't think we're going to return to the kind of free-form spelling in use back in the days of Shakespeare, say. As such, any new deviations will merely create more exceptions to the already confusing rules of English spelling. It's not much of an argument, I'll admit, but it's something.

Finally, grammar. You'll note, reading my blog posts, that I typically do try to avoid ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives. Now such rules as these are fairly arbitrary and were, I believe, simply agreed upon by some stuffy prescriptivist grammarians back in the 19th century. So, I can certainly understand criticism of them for stifling free and interesting use of language. And I would not enforce such rules as these rigidly - to take a famous example, "To boldly go" is supposedly grammatically incorrect, but it conveys the intended feel far more effectively than "Boldly to go" or "To go boldly." And this rather sums up my views on this particular subject. I avoid splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, by and large, not because it was viewed as correct by some Victorian men, but because I personally feel that in general, it produces a greater euphony in the finished sentence. If I feel it would sound better to disregard such a rule, I will disregard it to hell and back.
Also, I'm fairly certain there are 'rules' (Personally I, like Ridcully, prefer to think of them more as guidelines) of which I'm not aware. I may well typically follow them, but all I do really is try to structure my sentences so that they sound nice and convey my intended meaning clearly and unambiguously. For example, stuff to do with sentence structure I have no idea about - subjects and objects and predicates, whatever they are, I couldn't care less about them. I think things like that may well be taught in more detail in America than they are here, but I'm not really bothered in any case. I know my way around a sentence, even if I don't know what to call all the bits of it.

So, in conclusion, while I agree with some of what Stephen Fry says in that clip, I disagree with some of it as well. I have no issue per se with creative use of language, so long as it serves its purpose. People can disregard the so-called 'rules' of grammar, they can make up words, or verb words (Just like how I just verbed the word 'verb', though to be fair, I was quoting Calvin & Hobbes), I don't care, so long as their meaning is clear. Hell, it worked well enough for Shakespeare. And people thoroughly enjoying their use of language is something of which I most adamantly approve.
However I see a definite and important distinction between enjoying creative use of language and just not caring about whether or not you get it right. What constitutes 'right' is hard to define, but it most definitely exists. If the idiots one encounters from time to time who seem to me to be flagrantly abusing my beloved language can give a convincing argument for their particular 'creative' choice of words, spelling, etc, and why it rings truer to their ears than the traditional 'standard' English which they so defy, then more power to them and I'll reserve my scorn. But if, as I feel is significantly more likely, they just never bothered to learn how to speak well, and so get by on vulgarities and attitude, then I shall continue to feel justified in sneering at them.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh passionate language blogging <3

    I wish I had time to respond to this properly, but seeing as my final exam is tomorrow... not so much. Hopefully I will remember to come back to it at some point. I will say though, that something about the phrase 'something of which I most adamantly approve' made me very happy. I think because it's so resoundingly positive. Adamant approval sounds much more fun than adamant disapproval :P