Friday, September 16, 2011
Grammar nazis revisited
A good friend commented wisely on this topic. I decided to make my response into a posting rather than a comment. Here's what Bob had to say:
My pet hate is the term 'a number' - as in television reporting - when a journalist looks earnestly into the camera and with heavy emphasis says: "There were a number of incidents in which a number of people were injured."
Why should they not give some indication of how many? 'A number' can range from one to infinity. 'A number' is an excuse for sloppy research or downright laziness.
Language legitimately changes but I feel the place of older 'language Nazis' is to slow down the rate of that change, to give everyone pause to consider and to prevent complete chaos. What starts as a seemingly reasonable relaxation may all too soon cause language to become incomprehensible.
God knows, communication between humans is difficult enough, so we should try and keep some sort of uniformity in how we express ourselves.
I am always reluctant to enter into any debate on language - I am not literate enough myself to presume to lay down the law for others but, before I retired from newspapers, I found a handful of sub-editors worked ceaselessly to make sense of the work of young, university-trained reporters in the field.
"Language is not important, one told me" (after I had red-pencilled 40 spelling and grammatical errors in one of his news stories). "Does spelling or grammar matter as long as the meaning is clear?"
Alas, due to the havoc he had wrought on the English language, the meaning was far from clear.
And if we want to look at the potential of this downhill slide, just follow the comments of our grandchildren and their friends on Facebook - that is, if you can.
Bob: you mean like these FaceBook entries? (NOT my grandchild, by the way! No-one in my family, but an intelligent 20 year old nevertheless.)
Is so out of it right now didn't evan realoze i was pumpen leta get loud by jennifer lopez in maccas xar park what haa become of me ,,:'( Is gonna take his deseased self to bed so he can curl up in the fetal position and sleep bleh sick day tomorrow one thinks Is feeling like 8 cans pf shark shot .... hope i aint getting sick i dont wanna get sick fml ave q rocks though
So here we go. These are great observations, thanks, Bob. I take your point about the rearguard action against degrading the language; indeed, my friend Watto, a chap who can put together a flawless written piece on the spot, banged my head mercilessly against the brick wall of literary ignorance over me an' Mr Fry's declaration in favour of unlocking the handcuffs.
There's the point. I wouldn't allow 'Me and Mr Fry' either, but that's on the grounds of etiquette rather than grammar. Turn that around out of politeness and the bad grammar is less likely to be an issue. But should “Mr. Fry and I” also have that full stop in Mr.? If so, is Mr? as a question all right without the full stop? Is alright all right? (I hate alright infact, but don't tell anyone. In fact? Any one? Why is anyone OK when any one isn't? (**My hands are in the air!** I know there are times when 'anyone' and 'any one' have separate meanings, and a reasonable distinction for the sake of clarity may be needed!)
All of the above can be resolved readily by most people reading this, but for others less used to negotiating the nuances of language, it's a nightmare.
do we always need capitals? in many languages, there are no capitals. the full stop or its equivalent is sufficient. in the olden days of handwriting, capitals removed any doubt where a sentence ended when a hand-written comma and a full stop might look too similar. not any more, with a keyboard. i'm struggling with it too, i admit, but given that using a shift key is a two handed operation and i have only one, I'd rather like it for the sake of my personal convenience if we dispensed with capitals!
That's also why, for inverted commas, I use single ones instead of double. No need for the two-handed shift key operation, or caps lock. But this is just ummm... me. I?
I'm not advocating open slather. Far from it. Anything that creates ambiguity or misunderstanding is objectionable. Capitals can serve a useful purpose. Think of the confusion in Australia over Liberals and liberals, Labor and labour....
At the same time, I don't see that anything petty is worth making a fuss about. (No, I won't dare try defining 'petty' at this point. Should I have said 'now' instead of 'at this point'? Darn right I should have, just because it's cleaner and more efficient. Should we allow 'should of'? Perish the thought, because that's just an awful illiteracy and could distort meaning.)
These are questions of grace and subtlety in language more than beating kids round the head with grammar rules. I don't want to lose those kids altogether. We are in danger of that.
Kids learn grammar through good conversation, not by a book of rules. Speak to them grammatically and they'll learn how to express themselves clearly. If you say, 'Bill rung me this morning', you can bet that's what your kids will say. And they will fail at job interviews because of it!
Pronounce words correctly, and they have a better chance of spelling them. If we say 'lightening' when we mean 'lightning' then that's probably how we - and they - will try to spell it.
Bob, your sub-editors are like gold. It is a tragedy that the Murdoch press is sacking heaps of them right now on cost-saving grounds, because they are indeed the last warriors engaged in trying to keep the written language as pure as possible. Newspapers and books should be exemplary in written expression - literally! Online newspaper articles should be scrutinised painstakingly by subs to ensure meaning is clear.
The blogs I read are better written than many online articles rushed on to the news website and grammar-checked by grammar-bot. That's what's happening now. Boot off the subs and you allow a grammar computer program the right to mediocritise your flight of fancy, if the program gets it right at all.
Now you may say this is hopelessly
inconsistent contradictory. One minute I'm screaming for flexibility, and the next I'm demanding purity.
I'm actually asking for a double standard, for now at least. ('actually' in that last sentence is redundant, but I want it there, so there.) I'm asking for a double standard because this whole debate is going to be swept away, and we might as well have the best of all worlds while they exist.
The bibliophiles tend their libraries as most of us do, with those loved books, each of which has a personality of its own. We started collecting them when we started reading, or being read to if we were lucky, and we are used to a high standard of English expression. We can be cheeky and violate it because we know the standard we start with. We literarily superior beings can jostle with the hoi polloi if and when we feel like it. (Literarily? Oh my.... From what damaged portion of my brain did that sneak out?!)
Long may our books be with us. They'll always be there in some form.
They'll always have their guardians. Right now they're us. We. We're the guardians of our books at the moment.
Theatre as a device for teaching has always been around. Text is still a very efficient form of learning, but it now competes with film, TV and computer based teaching. Now, if teenagers want to find out how to do something, they go to youtube. How to change a spark plug on a lawnmower? It's there. How to insert a RAM chip into a laptop. How to open the back of the bloody thing! Yep. There it is on youtube. Nearly everything is.
If we don't allow for a double standard, then we'll end up having only one, except for a group of antiquarians whose numbers will rapidly decrease
through time within a generation. That's because a new era of learning is almost upon us, and it's unstoppable. Text messaging, ebooks and youtube or websites as we now know them, or blogs, are only the razor-thin end of an enormous wedge. It's far bigger than these. They're nothing but the crude first wave. The illiterate who can't read because they lacked the opportunity will be joined by the illiterate who choose not to if the latter are made to feel antipathetic towards text and reading. And both these groups will not necessarily be the ignorant ones. On the contrary. They might turn out to be the ones with the real knowledge that builds a controlling power base.
There's barely a village in Bangladesh that doesn't have an internet connection, and mobile phones, and only the barest minimum of literacy is needed to gain access to them. Look again at the FaceBook comments above. How literate to you need to be? Third grade, maybe - to get online.
You may think I'm off my rocker. Lost it completely this time. No, not yet. Read this, posted online just today. Reading levels in the US have declined dramatically. This is no coincidence, and the reasons are more complex than most can imagine. They're also irreversible. New tribes are forming in modern society. New castes, maybe.
Yes, power is currently in the hands of the literate. Some societies value literacy above practically all else. The Chinese and the Japanese know its power and aren't likely to compromise it for a long time, but they have genuine traditions immersed in millennia. When the first Ch'in emperor in the Third Century BCE had writing standardised throughout China, its first revolution (the only one it has had till the twentieth century), cemented the Chinese political landscape in place.
Power in our society currently rests with the literate. The disgraceful provisions sneaked into the Patriot Act in the USA were placed there by those who drafted the legislation, not the politicians. When they passed it in Congress, practically none of them knew what was in it.
But, as I said, this is going to change more rapidly than most of us can imagine, because we think in a particular way. I can't envisage a society where literacy doesn't dominate as the tool of power, but the sources of power are changing. Look at what's happening in the world around us even now.
I'm not advocating this change, by the way - I'm just saying it's going to happen. And this is where I wanted to start this. The rest will have to wait!