Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snobbery in defense of grammar is no virtue

MSNBC has an article out this week basically asking if our current stressful social/economic situation might be pushing "spelling snobs" and "grammar grunions" over the edge. (Or see the Netvine version that has comments.)

Forget for the moment the framing of that article -- why do people who insist on correct spelling have to be "snobs," etc?

Let's just say it's time for everyone to back down and take a deep breath.

I think author Diane Mapes has the kernel of the situation, but a bit of a wrong explanation for it. I really think a lot of the explosive growth we are seeing in the "correcting class" is the result of:
  1. Failing to realize language (and punctuation) has always changed.
  2. There is a certain amount of "situational" logic in our language, so as situations change, it's likely the language will, too.
  3. The digital-powered speed at which changes now propagate.
First, let's try to agree on two things, one that language has always changed and second that all those "rules" you were taught in school are really just guidelines, useful in most cases when we are trying to communicate, but just waiting to be broken for style or emphasis or when they just plain get in the way of communicating.

In other words, take a deep breath, folks, and relax.

Yes, I'll agree that it is distressing to see some of the punctuation, spelling, etc., that appears on signs and in marketing materials. But the world is not going to hell in a grammatical hand basket. There have always been variations that appalled the learned class (think Cockney - hell, one of the most memorable musicals of all time is based on that very premise). And those variations, many of them adopted from other languages, have made it into almost every language (think of the long-running, sometimes not-so-good-natured debate over what to call a hot dog in French).

The key thing in all this is the digital speed of change. The thing that let Sister Conan the Grammarian teach you year after year that you don't begin a sentence with "But" or "And" was that the books you were using might well have been 15 years old, and were still considered up with their times. Today, 15 days - heck, 15 minutes - old is getting a bit dog-eared.

And you're not going to stop that.

That is unsettling to lots of people because it takes one less certain thing out of their lives. We all have things that we rely on to not change much so that we can concentrate on the other things that produce greater benefit or represent greater danger (as we perceive it). Frankly, screwing around with whether the acceptable use of "disinterested" or "begs the question" has changed, or whether "too" should be set off by a comma, isn't something a lot of us have at the top of our to-do lists. As well it should be.

Some of us are paid to agnonize over such things (and decide when the teaching should change), and we're part of the problem. We tend to cling to our shibboleths because, well, it's easy. How many people really want the "excitement" that a constantly changing job brings? So why would teachers and the like really want to have to constantly change what they are teaching of the language? (After all, for the math teacher, 2+2 always equals four, right?)

Finally, there has been a fundamental change in the way we learn language. We (or our children, to probably be a bit more correct) tend to learn our language these days by speaking it. In our video/audio saturated society, it's only natural. But it is a much different way from the way "previous generations" used to learn it - thorough their Dick and Jane readers and the daily newspaper and the Hardy boys books, etc. When we learn language by speech, we get all the additional nonverbal cues that add to and define meaning - body movement, pitch, etc. We don't have to learn homophones for understanding. When we learn "Standard Written English," we are learning a different language, a more formal one, one in which word order and punctuation (and spelling) can be critical to meaning.

Now, SWE is a fine thing. I teach it all the time. But it is not the end all and be all of what John Bremner used to call "this wonderful bastard language of ours." It is one version -- a very useful version. But with its time and place -- and limits.

That text message just isn't going to accommodate it. That marketing poster or billboard -- or road sign -- where you have to catch the speeding motorist or brisk walker with large text and limited message is more likely to use the easily understood "thru" than "through." (After all, we freely accept "thruway.")

Yes, there is value in explaining that using an apostrophe -- and its placement -- versus no apostrophe at all probably goes a ways toward aiding understanding (coffees being quite different from coffee's, for instance). But referring back to that pragmatism, we are happy to break those "rules" when convenient and it helps undestanding. The New York Times, for instance, does things like "CD's," when "CDs" is more "correct." Why does it do it? The answer is quite practical -- the Times uses some all-cap headlines, and CDS doesn't really look much like the plural. So it becomes CD's, and for consistency is carried over into text.

Why do many style guides approve of minding your p's and q's? Same idea - readability and consistency.

We might do better by helping people understand what version of the language to use and where it is best used (and why), rather than hovering, red pencil or black marker in hand, vulture blog at the ready, latest book proposal in the computer. (And some of those efforts have been incisively and wonderfully criticized for the pompous exercises they are.)

Correct if we must, but let us go gently into the night doing it. All that stress isn't worth it.

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At 2/5/09, 11:54 AM, Blogger Janine said...


At 2/5/09, 3:46 PM, Blogger virtualredhead said...

I think recession-related stress is causing me to really hate this kind of “trend journalism.” Take another look–the story contains no actual research, just a bunch of random assertions from it’s author and then quotes from “experts” to back it up. This is why journalism is dying. Or maybe it’s already dead.

At 2/5/09, 4:19 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


That's why we all need editors :)


At 2/5/09, 4:27 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I don't claim that Mapes' story is any kind of great journalism.

But she does identify something I have written about - this tendency in some quarters to say the world is going to hell because of all these changes (nothing new, really) -- changes that have always been there but now seem threatening to some folks because those changes are now a lot more noticeable in the digital age.

It's cyclical. You can find about every couple of decades a spate of "language is going to hell so the world is going to hell" stuff. Heck, I have a quote from Confucius that says roughly the same thing.

But I know that in my conversations with people, and involvement in things such as ACES, there seems to be a new edge to it lately. Thus my musings, which probably can be boiled down to three words: get a grip.

At 2/26/09, 8:55 PM, Blogger Charles said...

The copy desk is both the bane and savior of a writer. Just depends on the copy editor. I've seen stories hashed beyond belief by a copy editor slavish to the rules. And I have seen copy editors who have enhanced a nuance.

And, yes, the language is constantly changing. And did I say I started a sentence with "and."

I would say that SWE is the coin of the realm and if you want to be understood cross-platform, that is what you write in. You can take liberties if you know it.

I would say it should be taught and taught rigorously. You should know the rules you are breaking.

We are a diverse society but we need a common language. It would take the rest of my life to learn the languages we speak in South Florida.

It would take a lot less time for everybody to learn SWE. I'm not putting down anyone. I'm saying that is what education, especially higher education, should do - give us a common language.

Since most of us cannot do mathematics, English is the universal language of flight. I'll vote for that.

We can speak dialect when necessary.


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