Stephen Fry on the beauty of "incorrect" language and the stupid futility of linguistic pedantry

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95 Responses to “Stephen Fry on the beauty of "incorrect" language and the stupid futility of linguistic pedantry”

  1. Foolster41 says:

    I happen to be currently reading “The language instinct” by Steven Pinker. Fascinating book for those who are interested in language and the way the brain works. Unfortunately it is a little old (1994) and there are a few things I’ve noticed about computer technology that is out date.

    One of the things that was interesting in the book was about the dialects of African Americans and how it’s not merely a “corruption” of English as some might assume, but has it’s own unique, complex and even rigid grammar.

    He also discusses the origins of language, and how grammar (not a specific grammar, but the frame work of grammar) is innate in children when they are born.

  2. Shrdlu says:

    Most rules in English do make sense. Even very useful, disambiguating ones like the subjunctive case are disappearing.

    Most languages do have a standard form, and as remarkably comprehensible as far-flung speakers of English are to one another compared to other languages, we should aspire to a standard so it remains so.

    As for pedantry, Churchill said it best: “That’s not the sort of English up with which I will put.” Still, I must admit I look down on people who answer “Good” when I ask how they do.

    • Antinous says:

      I confess that every time that I hear The Mamas and The Papas sing “I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA”, I yell, “Were! Were in LA!”

  3. Avram says:

    Church @14, no, the quote about English mugging other languages in dark alleys comes from James Nicoll.

    (Though I see Mortis beat me to it.)

  4. jjasper says:

    Split infinitive, split tongue. What’s the diff?

  5. Gwendolyn S. Patton says:

    A linguistic pedant is like somebody who, 3 minutes into a game of Calvinball, writes down all the rules as of that moment; and then whines every time one of the rules he wrote isn’t followed to the “t” later on.

    I do agree with your assessment. The only issue I have is that not every situation is a game of Calvinball!

    An email, an IM chat, even most blog posts — and especially comments and mailing list entries — almost always fall into the “Calvinball” category, unless they are professional emails, chats, posts, etc., then my personal opinion is that one should avoid leet-speak, texting slang, and at least attempt to be grammatical.

    If one claims to be a professional writer, one should show some pride and write professionally. This means to pick some level of quality above “I can figure out what the person is trying to get across”, preferably in the realm of “cracked someone’s published style guide and followed at least part of it some of the time”, and looked up spellings they weren’t certain of.

    For example: My local newspaper carries both AP newswire stories and the home-grown variety. It is painfully obvious which stories came from the AP wire without checking the byline, because it is clear that someone ran it through a spellchecker and proofread them for homonyms and “wrong word” problems. The local stories look like rejects from 8th grade creative writing class assignments. They’re rarely proofread, are rife with spelling and grammar errors, are hard to read, and follow no particular style.

    This is not a case of pedantry. This is frustration. The local news is impossible to read, because the reporters are barely able to write it so it can be understood.

    Where no pretense of professional status is claimed, let the Calvinball game commence! But when the author claims to be a professional, and demands the perquisites of that position, the responsibilities must also be assumed.

  6. desiredusername says:

    In order for logocentric language (spoken language) to function it must adapt to every context. In order for graphocentric language (written language) to function it must survive many ages and generations of contexts.

  7. Rampant says:

    @14: wondering if you purposely misspelled elicit (but probably not ;)). I am a pedant, elitist, et cetera. I have naught but adoration for someone trying to make language inventive. I do, however, despise hearing something like ebonics. It may not be wrong for the world, but it is wrong for me. Furthermore, there is nothing witty about taking the word shorty and making it mean ‘a hot woman’ or whatever it may mean (person? I do not really care).

    Lastly, the biggest problem with this balls to the walls approach is that there really is improper usage. The word dinner does not mean the third meal of the day, and merely because 99% of the English speaking world may think it is by now, that is not what it should mean. I do not care what one insists on calling it because it is senseless and debilitates the strength of the language. It does not improve nor deepen understanding, but rather this transmogrification makes it so that the 100% who could before understand what supper meant when talking with each other are misunderstood by the some 1% actually speaking in the proper manner. I will not apologize for having most of my dinners as lunch and most of my third meals as suppers (though it is not consistent, of course!)

    • Antinous says:

      The word dinner does not mean the third meal of the day, and merely because 99% of the English speaking world may think it is by now, that is not what it should mean.

      So you’d be happy when I call the local dogs ‘deer’, call my pork chop ‘venison’ and refer to a bowl of porridge as ‘meat’? Because those are examples of once-accepted meanings. Is there a moment in time when English was perfected? If you’re speaking a different language than 99% of English speakers, you’re not speaking English. You’re speaking an archaic variant.

  8. buddy66 says:

    CAMP FREDDIE,

    You wrote: ”I also hate the [insert word-filter challenging adjective here] at the marketing department behind the most funnest waste of disposable income. Pointless neologism are for fun, not profit!”

    Let me use plain words: What the fuck does that mean?

  9. Church says:

    Mortis @16, Spot-on! Thanks!

  10. papercup mixmaster says:

    @#22 Good fun? Ew.
    I’m surprised no one so far in these comments has run with Fry’s suggestion of “scunt,” etc. Anywho, I sat riveted to this podgram. Listening to Stephen Fry is a prime example of the pleasure of language. Also, I don’t recall him saying at all that consistency, style or editing should be thrown out the window – only that grousing about infinitives is, well, annoying. Finally, barmaids and muggings aside, I for one love the English language and all its weirdness. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Spanish and French as well – but I certainly don’t wish English had an Academy.

  11. Sekino says:

    @ Shutz

    I agree with your points. There is a fine line between accepting some ‘organic’ mutations in language and give lazy writers/speakers an excuse to dodge criticism (My first language is also French. We can be pretty zealous about language… ;) ).

    I see Stephen Fry’s point and can’t argue that some language nazis take it too far and can be extremely annoying. I usually don’t bother correcting people because I know it is not welcome. That said, I would be embracing his point more eagerly if horrendous language skills wouldn’t be so omnipresent and overlooked.

    I know internet is not the best place to find stellar standards of writing, but I am shocked daily by finding more and more butchered words and oddball ‘styles’ (Like people forgoing all capital letters: It can be design-savvy in a brand name logo but it makes reading an entire paragraph or blog post very cumbersome). It is also seeping into newspaper articles and supposedly ‘professional’ publications.

    I think there is a key difference between evolution of language and its very decay. The problem is that while Stephen has the wit and experience to make that distinction, many simply have no care at all about language and literacy or their basic rules.

    Sure, pedantry and language snobbery stink. But I think that right now, people relaxing the rules- or just plain massacring their respective languages- greatly outnumber zealous linguists.

  12. Daemon says:

    Formal english pretty much meets the definition of a dead language.

  13. samu says:

    This has slid… slidden? Slod in at number 3 in my favourite Fry podcast moments, behind his glorious rant about “compliance” on TV which means that spies can be shown shooting each other in the face but not driving without a seatbelt, and the marvellous evisceration of those among my (and his) countrymen who like to drone on about how Americans Don’t Get Irony.

  14. buddy66 says:

    THE DEAD MAKE RULES

    The dead make rules, and I obey.
    I, too, shall be dead some day.

    Youth and maid, who, past my death,
    Have, within your nostrils, breath,

    I pray you, for my own pain s sake,
    Break the rules that I shall make !

    –Mary Davies

  15. Kabur Naj says:

    So there I was, reading through this entire comment thread and amazed that nobody had dropped the Churchill quote, and getting my fingers all limbered up in anticipation. Robbed! At the last moment!

    All I can add is that I loved the homage to that quote in the movie “Beavis and Butt-head Do America”.

    “He was the fella… uh… off in whose shed they were whacking!” (Or words roughly to that effect.)

  16. desiredusername says:

    I know our concept of language depends on seeing logocentric language and graphocentric language as one and the same and this is probably because our denotata, our signified things, are intended to be the same.

    Oh and for Secondary Orality (a term for the oral nature of online text language) to function, who knows? I’ve never thought about it.

    Perhaps the same as for logocentric language but the desire for a clarity is frequently cited by language users. Not only that but there are frequent misunderstandings in online communication. I think we are still just babies in the online language realm.

  17. franko says:

    then why is it always the writers who insist on correcting others?

  18. DreadLetterDay says:

    #45 Shutz

    Classes have never been and never will be monolithic. They’re fractured within, between and over all the ‘standard’ layers (working, lower, middle, upper and their gradations). People have always and will always group together around their class identity, but that might well be something that doesn’t fit the monolithic definition. Class is not the one and only reified abstract around which groups form.

    If a particular region’s people feel themselves to be separate from the rest of a country, expect those elements – idioms, accent, humour, sports clubs, etc – that define them as different to become stronger, more accented or at least more strongly associated and supported by that region (and those outside of it)… The same could be said for other types of associations, like Happy Mutants, for example.

  19. EnglishNerd says:

    I love this conversation. I happen to fall into it quite frequently because a.) I have a BA in English, f.) I’m almost done with an MA in English, 7.) I teach freshman composition at the university I’m finishing my MA at, and k.) I’m a nerd about English.

    I know quite a number of the rules for “correct” English, and I break most of them quite happily. My take on English is that there isn’t 1 right way to use the language, but rather that the way you use the language is determined by the group of people you are talking to. It was nice to hear Fry takes a similar stance. I tell the students in my class that they way they use language should conform to the rules stated by the community they are part of. I also tell them that if they use texting language, I won’t understand it because I’m not fluent in it and so their message won’t be communicated.

    I’m with Lizardman – it seems that most people who ardently hold onto the rules use those rules as a way to discriminate against others. Of course not everyone does this, but it seems that most of the people that I’ve met who are pedantic use it primarily for that purpose.

    I wish that more people had fun with English; it’s incredibly fun and pliable. It’s why I’ve spent so much time studying it.

  20. Anonymous says:

    As a law student, I can tell you that if linguistic pedantry didn’t have a place in our society, we’d all be screwed.

  21. cellocgw says:

    OK, look:
    Borrowing words from other languages doesn’t degrade English. Generating new words for new concepts (internet) doesn’t degrade English. But I challenge anyone to explain how it helps either the language itself or people’s desire to communicate clearly when:

    “Beg the question” suddenly means “Begs [me] to ask a different question.
    “Unique” no longer is.
    “Comprise” just means “compose”
    “Literally” isn’t.
    “Tow the line” appears out of nowhere (well, OK, from more idiots who never saw the actual idiom in print and don’t know jack about its origin).
    “Consensus” just means uniformity — when it’s not being cheerfully misspelled as ‘concensus.’

    And there’s a whole list of new, ‘duplicate’ words which seem to have taken the place of perfectly decent words
    commentor–>commentator
    normalcy–>normality

  22. Cyberwasteland says:

    Indeed, I listened to it earlier and it’s truely a great posdcas, as are his other ones, so be sure the have a listen to them aswell.

  23. buddy66 says:

    ENGLISHNERD,

    You might like to use the Twain story about the failure of communication between a miner and a preacher. I had success with it when talking to my classes about diction and vocabulary. It’s one of his best California tales and makes a good point about the primacy of using language to be understood.

  24. Dorkomatic says:

    Fabulous fun.

    BTW: I think we should adopt the word “scunt” to our linguistic bosom.

  25. Tubman says:

    @#57: “We” being law students, I presume.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I listened to this a couple times as soon as it came through iTunes. Ah, prescriptivism vs descriptivism!

    I have to note something I noticed when I moved from a city where French and English are spoken fluently, to a mostly English-speaking city, and back again. I seem to be less irritated by errors in either language if I am in an environment of “linguistic acceptance”, where all the speakers realize that they have different proficiencies.

    Interesting stuff.

  27. ab5tract says:

    Naw thaz whut Ah’m fokkin tawkin ahbout.

  28. barquing says:

    I don’t have an objection to people inventing new words, but I do have a problem when the results are so ugly. Apple’s iPod Touch ad, “The most funnest ipod ever” is such a wilfully stupid and ungainly use of language it makes me ill just thinking about it. Compare that with the invented words of Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake, Roald Dahl, Douglas Addams etc. and weep heartily.

  29. gmoke says:

    The poet Lew Welch, a classmate of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen at Reed College, studied in Chicago with James Sledd and quoted him as saying, “Language is speech.” No more, no less. If you can say it and somebody understands it then it’s language. No matter what the pedants say.

  30. Anonymous says:

    As yes, the old chestnut that everyone should speak as they like, followed closely by a condemnation of those who prefer to speak in a particular way that displeases the author. Unfortunately, Fry is off base here. Growth and change only exist in a situation with standards (be they explicit or implicit). this tension is necessary for vitality, if not an inherent quality of all symbolic communication.

    Additionally, what is Fry’s recommendation? Everybody do what they want? Isn’t that the current system anyway?

  31. Anonymous says:

    there is one major flaw here, the English language is peppered with words that although pronounced the same (or very similar) have very different meaning dependent on spelling. Look at the public chats in any MMO for ten minutes and try and resist the urge to scream when you read something along the lines of “i kant do that wright now i have to do something in the reel world in tin minutes”

    i think this is attributed more to poor education than growth of the language

  32. libelle says:

    I could listen to Stephen Fry reading a dictionary. Even the OED :)

  33. purefog says:

    Though this is entertaining, I feel compelled — as a corrective measure — to commend to the reader “Authority and American Usage” by David Foster Wallace.

  34. Scixual says:

    @68: That is the core of the “descriptive vs prescriptive” debate, and I come down squarely with you on “descriptive”.

    Dictionaries DESCRIBE how language is used. Dictionary writers observe language use and report it, including neologisms and words and phrases falling out of favor.

    And yet people WILL insist on using it as evidence that someone’s use of a word is “wrong.”

    Grammar texts are usually used prescriptively. The really honest ones will say something along the lines of “these are the observed rules of American (or British) prestige dialect. If your intent is to speak this dialect, this is how to do it.”

    “Natural” speakers of a dialect won’t need a grammar.

    What chaps my buns is people assuming American Newscaster is the only “correct” dialect, and that any variation from that is an “error.” Or, perhaps, “just lazy” as if following that particular idiom is more work than all the others, and saying “ain’t” takes less effort, for example.

    Language is fluid. Not only is there language, there is dialect, accent, familiolect and idiolect. There is jargon, pidgin, slang, poetic and archaic usage and on and on and on.

    And it ALL has rules, even language that appears to us as “lazy”.

    Actual errors exist, of course, when what you speak (or write) differs from what you intend.

    But “dinner” means the second or third meal of the day, and if you want clarity, you say lunch or supper, or “dinner at 6pm”.

    Even people speaking the exact same dialect will not always understand each other.

  35. Ernunnos says:

    Every word of this is well-spoken, well-thought and absolutely liberating. What a treat.

    Oh, the irony. Because that is the problem with the careless use of language. The result is none of the above.

  36. kiltreiser says:

    Listened to this last night and was, as usual, profoundly grateful for the fact that Stephen Fry exists. My ex-wife and I used to have heated discussions about this very subject, she arguing for the eternal, immutable nature of language and I for the fact that it evolves and is in a constant state of flux. It lightens my day no end to know that I have the mighty Mr Fry in my corner for this particular fight!

  37. pendraphen says:

    Banana stringer mambo! Oooh oooh wuga wuga tango.

  38. robulus says:

    @#43 Shutz

    When I explain why I was confused, they have the nerve to accuse me of being the stupid and lazy one for not understanding their obfuscated point.

    “Obfuscated” implies they are intentionally being unclear, which I don’t think is what you meant. Just thought I’d point that out…

  39. Anonymous says:

    Language is alive. The English spoken by Shakespeare isn`t the same spoken today, as our won`t be spoken by our grandchildren and the like.

  40. reeraw says:

    omg fry bb – hai!!11 u ~speak~ 2 me

  41. jjasper says:

    Please folks, don’t confuse insisting on “correctness” with maintaining a consistent in house style for publication. A style guide is vitally important, and good consistent editing practices are the cornerstone of understandable media.

    “If you can say it and somebody understands it” does not mean the majority will understand it, and an inconsistent style is nothing to be proud of. Rules may evolve, but we can’t dispense with them entirely. Not that Fry is suggesting this, I’m sure.

  42. Tyro Prate says:

    As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the extreme points of view. The argument should be framed in written vs. spoken language.

    Precision in the written word is far more important than in the spoken. In everyday, spoken language, there is body language and voice inflection to help the listener flesh out the meaning of the words. There are also some advantages to things like slang and idiomatic grammar, in terms of inclusion and community.

    A sentence is like a mathematical equation. If writer and reader don’t agree on the definition of the terms and their interaction with each other, meaning is changed or lost. A misplaced comma can have (and has had) huge, real-world implications.

    Attempting to be precise when precision is necessary or desirable is not pedantic. It’s responsible.

  43. dculberson says:

    Many times, it’s not a question of style, but a question of clarity. If someone is just using the wrong word, it can render a sentence incomprehensible. And using you’re instead of your isn’t “fun” it’s stupid.

  44. Anonymous says:

    One word: Google.

  45. ZippySpincycle says:

    See also Tricky Linguistics, with Hugh Laurie

  46. Dillenger69 says:

    I always enjoy topics as cromulent as this one.

  47. Ugly Canuck says:

    No matter what is said, it could always be said better. Or is that better said?

  48. Superfluous Moniker says:

    Personally, it’s the laziness in writing (u r so dum) that really gets to me, although I will admit that my mind screams “Moron!” when I see or hear improper grammar. I’m much less likely to take someone seriously if they don’t know their ‘theres,’ or say “I seen that.” My boss, who is a very smart guy, does the latter constantly; it’s all I can do not to correct him sometimes.

    On the other hand, I’m guilty of the ‘like’ syndrome, which I’m sure rings the same bell in the minds of others. I only say it when I need, like, um, er, eto, ah, a second to collect myself, though.

  49. Machineintheghost says:

    Hooray for clear writing and speaking, and down with pedantry! My boss’ pet peeve is split infinitives. That’s a bit of pedantry with its own long history. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_infinitive#Avoiding_split_infinitives.
    Only he doesn’t really know what an infinitive is, and thinks it means you should never use an adverb right after an auxiliary verb.

  50. John Wonderlich says:

    There’s an entire beautiful chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct devoted to a similarly minded take-down of what he calls the “language mavens”, iirc.

  51. The Lizardman says:

    It seems to me that most of the time language pedantry is often meant to be more of an attack on the person than their language use. Such that if someone uses a phrase or spelling assosciated primarily with,for example, frat boys then people who dislike frat boys will use it as a chance to attack them moreso out of their dislike of frat boys than any real concern for language.

    Language use can be a very strong indicator of what sort of person one is dealing with and thus illicit responses based on that view of the speaker rather than the words themselves. I am thinking about the way some pedants scold others with phrases like ‘talk like a grown up’ or ‘you sound like a (insert your favorite denigrating racial/sexual orientation/etc slur here)’

  52. Ugly Canuck says:

    Ah clarity, sweet clarity…how else could we climb Truth Mountain (the last peek of clarity’s chain)?

    PS: Thanx to Van Vliet for insight.

  53. takeshi says:

    @ jjasper:

    “Please folks, don’t confuse insisting on ‘correctness’ with maintaining a consistent in house style for publication. A style guide is vitally important, and good consistent editing practices are the cornerstone of understandable media.”

    Agreed. One problem here is the very use of the word “language.” Language is spoken, while writing is the semi-permanent capturing of language. Sloppy writing is an indication of intellectual weakness, except in comments threads.

    I love Stephen Fry, but I’m sure that Oscar Wilde would have something to say about all of this. Dictating behavioral terms for so-called pedants is no better than correcting others’ usage. There simply is no difference. In both cases, an attempt is made to stifle freedom of expression.

  54. jjasper says:

    For a famous example:

    I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God

    Versus:

    I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God

  55. Ugly Canuck says:

    Peak?
    Pique?

  56. FoetusNail says:

    It seem to me, his thoughts are more about just relaxing and having fun with language.

    Reading the Clarified Networks Blog, linked to in the bb post “Time Lapse of Botnet’s Spread Around the World”, I found this great sentence, which illustrates how we have fun with language:

    The result was better control of the saturation and smoother blobbage even in crowded areas:

    Invented words are found all over bb. That we have universal rules for making up words, like adding -age to the end of a word, shows how much we enjoy word play.

    Googling *blobbage* yields 1.3 M results. However, when you google *define: blobbage* you get nothing, yet most of us either know what it means or can figure it out.

  57. Anonymous says:

    just as long as people dont spell “lose” as “loose” im down.

  58. FoetusNail says:

    Tyro Prate, you mean like the phrase:

    The panda bear eats, shoots and leaves.

    The panda bear eats, shoots, and leaves.

    BTW, I highly recommend the book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Those of you who bother to read my verbose comments, know I need to read this book a few more times ;)

  59. Raj77 says:

    One should be aware before commenting that Stephen Fry isn’t talking about the sort of prescriptivism that preserves clarity, but the sort that abhors neologism and working-class speech.

  60. Church says:

    Was it Terry Pratchett who said, “English is the language that follows other languages into dark alleys and mugs them for what’s in their pockets?”

    I thought so, but my google-fu is failing me, and I’m probably mis-remembering the quote or the attribution.

  61. Anonymous says:

    This is an amazing bit of writing and a very fine preformance I recently made a kinetic typography video using the audio from this podcast I hope you like it.You can see it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

  62. takeshi says:

    I, for one, should have listened to the podcast before commenting. However, my point is no less valid. Linguists should be able to moan all they like regarding arbitrary coinage and “working-class speech.” It is as much their right to speak the way they do, pedantically or otherwise, as anyone else’s.

    Given the choice, I’d rather be corrected incessantly than allowed to illustrate my ignorance. As I see it, a fair amount of “working-class speech” lacks the clarity that some pedants seek to preserve. So, it’s easy to see how the “good” kind of pedantry may intersect with the “bad.” Both may be wastes of time, but neither are completely uncalled-for.

  63. Anonymous says:

    I cannot support Jasper’s common sense attitude to this more. Just because someone understands you makes it language, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will be able to make heads or tails of your speech without a code breaking background.

  64. AirPillo says:

    I’ve always hated language pedants.

    Language is not set in stone. It is dynamic and continues to evolve. Even the rules which are canonical tend to ebb and flow in nature and importance.

    A linguistic pedant is like somebody who, 3 minutes into a game of Calvinball, writes down all the rules as of that moment; and then whines every time one of the rules he wrote isn’t followed to the “t” later on.

  65. takeshi says:

    Correction: “neither is completely uncalled-for.”

  66. Machineintheghost says:

    “English is the result of Norman men-at-arms attempting to pick up Saxon barmaids and is no more legitimate than any of the other results.”

    – H. Beam Piper

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/English_language [I think it was from Little Fuzzy.]

  67. Antinous says:

    then why is it always the writers who insist on correcting others?

    Interestingly, we get an amazing number of comments ripping into Cory for his linguistic stylings. He’s a successful author. His ability to communicate effectively is pretty well proven. Yet, if he uses ‘sez’ instead of ‘says’, somebody always blows a nutty.

    We also get quite a few grammar lectures. The Boingers type quickly rather than accurately and it’s helpful that readers tell us when we need to make corrections. But I’m always surprised that some commenters include a furious lecture on the correct use of ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ or ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ when it’s just a typo.

  68. buddy66 says:

    It’s “commenter,” one who comments. That’s me on bb.

    I don’t want to be a goddamn commentator

  69. shutz says:

    I really don’t mind being inclusive, vocabulary-wise. I do, however, mind people who mess up elementary grammar and spelling out of laziness, and then get pissed off when you point it out gently to them.

    And I do mean gently. I always try to be diplomatic about it, but except when I’m dealing with like-minded people (which is, only about 1% of the time) I invariably get at least a dirty look or a snarky response.

    Some of the time, the bad spelling and grammar actually prevents me from fully understanding what they’re trying to communicate. When I explain why I was confused, they have the nerve to accuse me of being the stupid and lazy one for not understanding their obfuscated point.

    I really don’t mind seeing language evolve, and I totally agree that English is the language that is currently evolving the fastest (although I can only compare it to my mother tongue, French — yes, English is actually my second language!) and that that is a good thing. I just feel that laziness should not be the main factor provoking that mutation.

  70. Takuan says:

    better have solid basics before attempting fancy parries and ripostes. Else ye get skewered.

  71. mortis says:

    Church: http://goodcatmum.blogspot.com/2007/07/thrill-of-thesauruses.html

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    ^m^

  72. Ugly Canuck says:

    Hey Lizardman you are onto something, re: language as a give-away to what sort yer dealing with; England is still a “class society”; how you talk gives ‘em an idea of yer class, so’s they can govern themselves correct-like vis-a-vis your relative positions in the hierarchy.

  73. tomioka says:

    When reading this, I immediately thought
    of this from the boingboing archives…

    http://www.boingboing.net/2008/08/27/english-is-a-usermod.html

    (if it seems wordish, use it)

  74. Jongo says:

    @ Church:

    I recall a similar quote involving Wicca, and its muggings of any given pantheon in theological dark alleys. (In S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire.)

    Come to think of it, there are some pretty striking similarities between Wicca and English.

  75. DreadLetterDay says:

    If memory serves on the few books I’ve read on sociolinguistics ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociolinguistics ), the pedantry of maintaining a ‘higher’ form of a language is much to do with the higher social standing that correlates to the speaking of that form of the language.

    Aspirational people drift towards the ‘higher’ form of the language, while people who want to reinforce their difference from those who speak the ‘higher’ form tend to reinforce and grow stronger accents/dialects within their ethnic/regional/socioeconomic environment.

    One point that lodged in my head seemed to point towards women tending more towards the ‘higher’ forms and trying to point their children in that direction, while men were more commonly associating to their group.

    It’s interesting stuff.

  76. azaner says:

    Wow. After several years, this is the first post of yours I’ve read that’s made me think: “This guy is completely clueless.”

  77. Itsumishi says:

    Firstly – The podcast in text form.

    Every word of this is well-spoken, well-thought and absolutely liberating. What a treat.

    Oh, the irony. Because that is the problem with the careless use of language. The result is none of the above.

    You can certainly enjoy a language without sticking to all the ‘rules’ that dictate it. I believe the term is ‘poetic licence’. The linked article uses much better examples then I could ever find so I’ll use them.

    If it wasn’t for ‘the careless use of language’ we wouldn’t have half the language we have today!’

    “If you can say it and somebody understands it” does not mean the majority will understand it

    The majority of people don’t understand Gaelic either!

    I think Fry’s main point is simply enjoy language and don’t get upset over moot rules.

  78. The Unusual Suspect says:

    #5 and #6, “Clarity is not the prize in good writing, nor is it the mark of good style.”

    By which Strunk and White advise us that obscurity may, deliberately and clearly, communicate a message entirely its own.

  79. shutz says:

    DreadLetterDay: (#39)

    Even though I’m no expert in these matters, I’m starting to get the feeling that the social division is happening less along traditional “class” lines (the rich/aristocracy vs the poor/proletariat) and more along new lines that have more to do with people who actually value knowledge and intelligence, and people who don’t trust it.

    Look at how, in a lot of social situations, if you demonstrate a higher-than-average grasp of science, math, or even language, some people will immediately antagonize you.

    The split may have started between rich and poor, but now, there are some relatively poor people who, through such things as the Internet, have been able to educate themselves, while there are more and more relatively rich people who simply don’t value intelligence and knowledge.

    I sometimes worry that the situation portrayed in the old ‘V’ miniseries from the 80′s might actually happen even without the intervention of ‘Visitor’ aliens.

  80. urshrew says:

    I just want to control people any way I can, so I learn a lot of English grammar and beat people over the head with rules that often don’t make sense and which no one is ever going to bother to look up. Is that so wrong?

  81. Kennric says:

    OK, I just have to way in here. I personally love grammer nazi’s. In fact, the more superior, condescending and the more they expect you to bend over and tow the line on there specific pet peeves, the better. When I get a list of language don’ts, I literally glow with an inner warmth, cuz as an amateur sadist, few things surpass the joy of a person who hands you a list of ways to annoy them. The kind of person whom you know takes it so seriously that you can’t resist taking advantage.

    Its like being a mugger and having people walk up to you and describe the contents of their pockets and stand quietly waiting for you to work them over. Hear, they say, is a list of things that hurt me. If you want to see me froth at the mouth, just use one of the phrases I have written down on this list, see? Want I should go apoplectic? No problems, just verb this noun at me and watch me freak out. Oh, and for that special occasion, misuse this old phrase that has a specific technical meaning that no one knows cause they don’t teach it in school and everyones gut instinct on what the phraze should mean, based on what it sounds like it means, is so totally, like, wrong it hurts me even to think about it.

    Witch begs the question: why exactly do we stick to the obscure meanings of phrases when its pretty clear they would be far more useful? We obviously actually need a snappy phrase which actually means what begs the question sounds like it means, while the thing begs the question actually does mean is something I have never actually had to say. This manner of talking is certainly unique, its just like how the concensus says “I could care less” really means “I couldn’t care less.”, but everyone no’s what you mean when you say either one anyway. This kind of crap apparently is comprised of snotty adherence to classist rules instead of, practical communications.

    But I digress. I merely wanted to point out how udderly deliteful it is when someone tells you precisely how best to piss them off. And then sit’s their patiently, awaiting abuse. I secretly think they like it as much as I do.

  82. SkullHyphy says:

    I’m all for creative language in poetry and prose, but people need to know the rules of the language in order to communicate most efficiently and with the least amount of misunderstanding. Uv course casual email & txt r diff.111 The phrase I hate right now is “try and do something.” It’s “try to do.” If the person succeeds in the doing, then the trying is implied and made redundant. For example, I could say “I’m going to wash my hands,” because I am confident that I will complete the act successfully, but I would say “I’m going to try to wash my hands” if I thought the water was turned off or if it was part of physical therapy to regain the use of my hands. I wouldn’t say that I will try to wash my hands and wash my hands unless I was going to repeat the action twice – once with a doubtful outcome and once with the expectation of completing the act. I might say that if I had a previously broken sink that I wanted to test for functionality and a working sink that I would use in case the first one was still broken.

  83. Anonymous says:

    Aaah! Noo!! Not you too Cory!

    I can’t get away from the word ‘proclivity’ this week. It’s following me everywhere. I didn’t even know what it meant 7 days ago. It’s driving me mad.

    *twitch

  84. Camp Freddie says:

    I think you must make the distinction between useful, useless and counterproductive grammar.

    Some grammar rules will never make important distinctions in the meaning of a phrase. Examples are splitting the infinitive, not knowing when to use who and whom, “onto” versus “on to”, and using “less” when you mean “fewer”.

    Some rules do make important differences in meaning or clarify an ambiguous phrase. Examples are “to many” versus “too many”, use of capitalisation, and where you put the work “only” in a sentence.

    Lastly, some rules are counterproductive. Verbing a noun allows you to clearly say things that would otherwise be very difficult or longwinded. Likewise, banning the Oxford comma (or parenthetical statements) can makes phrases unnecessarily ambiguous. Being a nazi about grammar in these cases will result in a serious lack of cromularity.

    There are obviously grey areas. I hate the phrase “X is 5 times less than Y” when somone means “X is 1/5th of Y” or “Y is 5 times more than X”. Their meaning may be obvious but it’s mathmatically incorrect (and maths MUST have fixed rules!)
    I also hate the [insert word-filter challenging adjective here] at the marketing department behind the most funnest waste of disposable income. Pointless neologism are for fun, not profit!

  85. Narmitaj says:

    The “English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious” quote is generally attributed to James D Nicoll

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/James_Nicoll

  86. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always thought that English grammar rules should try to explain how people are using the language rather than dictate how they should use it.

  87. brianary says:

    As always, be conservative in what you produce and liberal in what you accept.

    The rant did put me in mind of HTML of years past, however, and pages that, after adding in the nth inconsistency, completely broke altogether. Minor clarity issues are not typically incomprehensible, but we should also keep in mind that they are cumulative.

    The biggest problem I have with language in the last decade or so is the imprecision of weasel words, capitalized on by politicians and corporate mouthpieces. By way of illustration, “I take responsibility” before the Bush Administration meant someone was going to resign (it no longer means anything). Also, how often do we use words like “interesting”, when we don’t really mean anything at all beyond a grunt of acknowledgement?

    Fry was wrong about language not having an authority–or the horrors of language having an authority. French has the Academie Francais, and it’s a perfectly cromulent language (the primary language of the Olympics, and the language of diplomacy, IIRC).

  88. Takuan says:

    not if you wear a harness while you do it.

  89. SkullHyphy says:

    “#71 posted by Antinous , January 8, 2009 1:06 AM

    On the other hand…

    …when language goes horribly wrong”

    When the president does it, it’s not illegal.

  90. Shrdlu says:

    But pedantry is good fun, and I just cannot take Lord/General Melchett seriously on this subject.

  91. Bungo says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s better to know the rules before breaking them.

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