Thursday, June 7, 2007

Why does it matter?

Who cares, right? What's it any good for? is what the high school student always asks of grammar and mathematics lessons alike. It is a question that has long kept me from accepting acquaintances' casual requests that "maybe you can help me edit this brochure/paper/website/letter to the editor." Inevitably, at some stage in the process, the acquaintance will become in the first place frustrated that I haven't changed their plain prose into words that sparkle or burn, and in the second place that I have proposed changing too much. They will take a comma correction as personal criticism. Then they will look at me sideways, suspiciously, and say, "It doesn't really matter, anyway." And then they'll ask, even more suspiciously, whether I really get paid to do this.

Which is why I stick with copy editing for textbook companies, who (or which?) know exactly how much they want me to do -- or, usually, not to do.

As with many seemingly simple questions, this one's answer is unhelpfully complicated. Simply put, though, language matters because it is how we communicate. Even that statement seems to garner plenty of criticism, met as it often is with the grumbled, "I can understand you just fine." Yeah? Have you ever tried to decipher London cockney?

Bryan Garner wrote an excessively long essay in Harper's several years ago (partly to introduce his new Modern American Usage) in which he printed the entire lecture he gave to every university student who complained to him about his grammar and language corrections on their essays. His short answer? If you want to be taken seriously, if you ever want to go anywhere, you've got to speak the language well enough to know how the game is played.

This love for language is often misinterpreted as wanting to make everyone speak and write absolutely the same. Quite false. It's about understanding one another. The rest is just the toothsome gooey fudge left in the bottom of the pot. Any true philologist gets their true pleasure in exploring the potentials of words and dialects and the infinite iterations of meanings. Heck, I get a kick out of looking up the names from J.K. Rowling's books in my Oxford English Dictionary because I know she draws heavily from Old English and Celtic mythology when coming up with them.

Personally, I have a love for learning other languages in general, and not just the ones with different alphabets. When my English husband and I first met, he told me one evening as I was going to bed, that "I'll knock you up at about 8." You think you understand English? I stood open-mouthed and red-faced for a good few seconds before I remembered that my study-abroad survival dictionary (kindly provided by my home college) defined the Britishism "knock [someone] up" as "to wake [someone] up." Nine years into marriage now and we're still working out the niceties of being, as my mother-in-law puts it, "divided by a common language."

As certifiedprepwn3d said in her post below, our ways of communicating are changing at eyeblink paces. Online conversation has (partly due to its replacement of the spoken word, I'd argue) made written communication more demanding than it was before. How often did people feel the need to put winking smiley faces in their handwritten letters to make sure the recipient knew they were "just joking!"

None of this means that language matters to you. We're not here to proselytize --I swear! -- but to revel in a common love for the ways in which we can use and abuse and mold language. We read grammar books for fun. We delight in finding new words, or new meanings for old ones. We're just kids playing in word-mud. Get your mucky clothes on and come on in.

21 comments:

William Timberman said...

Any true philologist gets their true pleasure in exploring the potentials of words and dialects and the infinite iterations of meanings.

Oops. Since I do this about six times a day, I'm hardly the one to be pointing fingers. Still, I thought it wouldn't be out of order to, well, you know.... :-)

Karen M said...

Actually, that use of "their" is a modern one, which recognizes that English doesn't have a gender-neutral pronoun for such purposes. It eliminates having to write/type "his or her" in order to be inclusive.

We could debate it, though, because I'm sure that not everyone agrees on its usage. As a woman, though, I appreciate that it's becoming more accepted.

And/or maybe we could come up with some more appropriate pronouns ourselves and just start using them everywhere when we comment online, hoping they take effect virally.

Any suggestions?

Introvert Girl said...

I've been using the plural for years, WT, as much as it galls me. "His or her" is too cumbersome, and "one" doesn't fit this situation (besides which, I always get complaints that "one" sounds too poncy). But I still appreciate the point!

Karen and I had an earlier exchange, just before she got the site up, about the need for a gender-neutral pronoun. I don't see why, since words are invented all the time, we can't invent this one. I'm open to suggestion :-)

William Timberman said...

I understand the dilemma, truly. I remember a light-hearted discussion years ago in which I sugggested that women use he and men she.

Not taken up, of course, and for years I jiggered sentences in work-related documents to avoid the he/she, or (s)he conundrum.

Still, in historical terms, the mismatch between collective noun requiring the singular, and the plural, politically correct pronoun still sets my teeth on edge. Maybe this is something for future generations, who aren't dragging the baggage of centuries around with them, to resolve once and for all.

And in the context of Britishisms, have you ever notice how much more scrupulous writers in the UK are about using plural verbs with collective nouns when the action referred to is that of the individuals within the group? Here on our side of the pond, we seem to have abandoned any pretense of correlating the two.

Karen M said...

"how much more scrupulous writers in the UK are about using plural verbs with collective nouns"

Though messy enough before, it all went to pot in a hurry when Bush declared null and void the previous treaties on verb and noun agreement.

Introvert Girl said...

Very funny, Karen ;)

William, I apologize heartily for setting your teeth on edge. If it's any consolation, failure to use the subjunctive does the same to me, which is unfair as most people don't even know what it is.

I think the verb-noun agreement issue is just another symptom of the inability to teach grammar in any meaningful way in schools. There's no context, usually, in the first place, and in the second place most teachers don't have a clue what they're talking about. Last year I tutored some high school students on grammar because they were worried about their ACTs, and from reading their worksheets and exams it was clear the teacher had no idea what was wrong, what was right, or why.

William Timberman said...

No apologies necessary, IG. I understand the need, but my ear is still tuned to what I got rapped on the knuckles about decades ago. Even so, as I said, I make the error unintentionally all the time. (Anyone I can manage, but everyone throws me every time.)

Maybe in this case, a lack of so-called proper instruction in grammar, coupled with what the instincts of a younger generation naturally find preferable, will ultimately be our salvation.

Introvert Girl said...

And a new textbook is born:
The New English Grammar: Returning to the State of Nature

Wanna write it?

William Timberman said...

LIke Moses, I'm permitted to look down upon the promised land, but not to enter it. (still, I have high hopes that the blue-flippered beastie will, as his mom will no doubt see that he's properly prepared. :-)

Karen M said...

Dont' be so sure, WT. Stranger things have happened...

One of the most popular bloggers on Salon (back when it had popular generic bloggers) was a young woman named Julie who decided to work her way through Julia Child's book on French cooking. She ended up with a book deal.

Also, my daughter took me to a book signing at a yarn shop a while back. The two women who wrote the book (Mason-Dixon Knitting) had met in a comment thread on a knitting blog, and decided to take their very specific (and to some people boring) discussion offline. They started their own blog, and also ended up with a book deal... before they'd ever met.

Their stuff is wonderful, by the way.

In the meantime, we have a lot of playing in the word-mud to do...

Karen M said...

I almost forgot... full disclosure: that usage bothers my ear, too, but I use it because we have nothing else. So far.

If only I could write song lyrics... this thread calls for some gender-netural, verb 'n noun agreein' blues.

[WT, in response to your question about concrete poetry: I'm not sure what it is, but I do write some here and there. I will never be a famous poet, though.]

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

Karen M: Actually, that use of "their" is a modern one, which recognizes that English doesn't have a gender-neutral pronoun for such purposes.
I'm not sure how you are using "modern" here. But in any case it is a feature of "modern" English since Shakespeare used it and he is on the cusp of Modern English. I don't know of pre-Shakespearean uses, but many "modern" authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll have used it. Of course Lewis Carroll also wrote Jabberwocky, but my feeling is that if it's good enough for Jane Austen, it's good enough for me. But if you ever need ammunition to defend you use of their as a third person singular gender-neutral pronoun, go here.

certifiedprepwn3d said...

sometimes I try to use "its" or "our" or "your" - "their" sounds good to me in speech but never looks quite right.

today is work busy for me - right when there is really stuff happening at not-work. grumpy -

Karen M said...

Frankly, my dear... Thank you for that link. I knew about Austen's prepostion-endings, but not about the third-person pronouns. How did I miss those in all of those readings.

Here's the money quote (for me) from your link:
So it seems that it was only in the late 18th century or early 19th century, when prescriptive grammarians started attacking singular "their" because this didn't seem to them to accord with the "logic" of the Latin language, that it began to be more or less widely taught that the construction was bad grammar. The prohibition against singular "their" then joined the other arbitrary prescriptions created from naïve analogies between English and Latin -- such as the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition.

I'm going to add that link (once I figure out where to begin it) to the blogroll.

Karen M said...

certifiedprepwn3d - Which time zone are you in? I'll try and stay up later tonight, if you like, and if you're on the west coast. However, we do have at least two contributors, WT and Jeff W, who both inhabit that region. I'm on the east coast... I'm not sure about the others.

Introvert Girl said...

The blue-flippered beastie and I are on the East Coast, to mummy's eternal despair. But I live in the country and tend to go to bed early -- could make an exception tonight, as I'm failing to get any real work done and have deadlines, ack!

William, never say never to books. If there's one thing the blogging world has taught us, it's that following your interests and passions can lead almost anywhere.

Michael Harold said...

I used to say "his and her". Then I changed to "her and his". Then I tried alternating "his" with "her" (although never in the same sentence). Then I tried on s/he. Nothing worked. Now I dispense with the "his" and "her" rules and use "their" when possible. Even though it does not resolve the singular/plural possessive personal pronoun issues, I think it as close as you can get to a gender neutral possessive pronoun at this point.

William Timberman said...

Well, folks, I was thinking more of the promised land of gender-neutral pronouns, rather than that of writing a new grammar, but given my age, I'm not likely to set foot in either. (Which reminds me...does anyone hate step foot as much as I do?)

For the CI newswire, I'm plugging away on the Britishisms post (in an offline text editor.) How much it will be in the general interest when it's done is still in question, but we'll see. Perhaps tomorrow....

Karen M said...

It's nice to see you here, Michael. Would you like to join us, too? I'm noticing that the earliest visitors to this site are GG-commenters who appreciate language... and whose posts we tend to appreciate, too.

If you're interested, just send me an email, and I'll have blogger send you an invite. Either way, we look forward to seeing you here in the comments.

Introvert Girl said...

William, I'm still game for inventing a gender-neutral pronoun. It could become our cause celebre -- and lead to that book contract ;)

Karen M said...

Yes!! --a cause celebre-- and a book to go with it. Makes me think we might also want to have some other games or contests here-- not sure how we could diagram sentences, though. ;~)