Friday, March 20, 2015

In Favor of "Proper" English

Serious thinkers about language have lately been arguing that we should jettison some of the rules that determine verbal felicity.

You know which rules they are talking about--the Victorian and pre-Victorian rules about proper English prose style.

By now everyone knows that academics cannot write. They seem preternaturally drawn to turgid prose, the kind that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Were anyone to accuse them of writing improper English they will reply that they must write that way because their thoughts are so complex. In truth, they write that way because they do not know what they are talking about.

If you know your subject and are not trying to be willfully obscure, you should state your point clearly, concisely… and, dare I say, grammatically.

You might feel that Victorian prose style and its rules for language usage were constraining, but those who obeyed them were far better writers than many of today’s intellectuals.

The writers and editors who are currently inveighing against the old rules of usage declare them to be arbitrary impositions. Since language usage is established by the free market, they suggest, it should not be determined by pedants sitting around a musty room.

Also, editor Oliver Kamm points out--after Noam Chomsky--children speak grammatically before they learn the rules of grammar. They are thus not following rules they have learned.

This demonstrated, Chomsky said, that the human brain is wired in a certain way. Learning language activates certain kinds of brain functions, and that means that it cannot happen any which way.

For the most part, the new linguistic rebels are not telling us to throw out grammar and syntax. They are honing in on “usage.” In particular, they are attacking more formal writing, as opposed to more lax and idiomatic writing.

Kamm is right to point out the snobbery involved, and also the fact that language usage identifies people as belong to one or another social class. And he is right to note that different events require different diction:

A speech delivered at a public event marking a great tragedy, for instance, demands a highly formal register; commentary on the Super Bowl needs a conversational tone. If you mix them up, you have failed not just in standards of language but in proper behavior as well.

Of course, one need not comment on the Super Bowl in a conversational tone. It depends on how well you write in that tone. Why can’t a good writer write about the Super Bowl in a formal register? Depending on the writer, it might be wonderful or it might be a calamity. 

Now, the new linguistic libertines have told us to jettison the rules that used to be categorized as good usage.

Not only does good usage distinguish people by class, it must also constrain our ability to express our feelings.

And yet, what makes you think that the purpose of writing is to express yourself. Writing is more about communicating with a reader. Sometimes, when writing about a character, bad speech might be appropriate. Unless you are writing poetry or a prose poem, one should avoid such verbal infelicities.

When you follow the rules of usage you are respecting the sensibility of your reader. Good writers always try to respect their readers.

Since Kamm is British he understands that more formal speech signifies membership in a higher class. Great Britain notoriously classifies people according to accent, word usage and speech patterns. Remember My Fair Lady.

Evidently, his argument against rules is an argument against social hierarchy. Or better, he is making a multicultural argument that all standards are bad.

Unfortunately, social hierarchies are endemic to the human species and to primate species also. If hierarchies are determined by the way people use language, then anyone, regardless of pedigree, can rise or fall socially. Think My Fair Lady.

It’s better to make social mobility depend on manners, even mannerisms than to make it a function of the accident of birth.

In any event, the new rule-breakers emphasize several points.

They will allow you to split infinitives. Kamm offers this one: “to boldly go.”

Frankly,the phrase is not acceptable English. Anyone who can’t do better than that is simply lazy.

They will also allow you to dangle your participles.

You will probably understand what I mean if I say: Going to work the sun was coming up, but most dangling participles are confusing. The sentence says that the sun was going to work and that is simply a lazy.

Kamm also accepts double negatives. If it was good enough for the Rolling Stones, it should be good enough for your writing.

Of course, when Jagger, Richards and company sang: “I can’t get no satisfaction,” they were being poetic; they were speaking in character. They were using speech to define a certain kind of character.

If you are writing rock ballads you can use double negatives all you want. You can even caricature the lower classes. Otherwise you should avoid them. True, sometimes they work. Most of the time they don’t.

And linguistic libertines will happily allow you to use passive constructions and even to overload your writing with the verbal copula.

Here they are on firmer ground.

Who does not remember this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Apparently, if Dickens can do it, you can do it too. 

In truth, one would happily allow a college student to try his or her hand at writing like Dickens. How else are you going to learn?

But, if you are writing for publication and have less talent than Dickens--that means, just about everyone-- you should prefer active to passive constructions.

Sentence 1: There was a dog running down the road.

Sentence 2: A dog was running down the road.

The second is better than the first, self-evidently. Only lazy writers use think that the two are equal.

Language usage is a marketplace, but it is not a free-for-all. It might be commonplace for many people to use the word “ain’t” in conversation, but that does not make it good or right. Many people use grammatically incorrect structures like “I seen,” but that does not mean that you should be using them in a serious essay… unless, of course, you put them in the mouth of a character or you are trying to affect a certain tone or create a certain mood.

In Great Britain, and even in America sprinkling our conversation with “ain’t” or grammatical mistakes like “I seen” will cause people to see you as belonging to a lower class. We may not like this, but it seems to be part of our social reality.

You might say that bad English is more expressive. It smacks of authenticity, of spontaneity. It feels like it has come straight from the gut.

It reminds us of method acting, a scourge on American theatre, wherein the actor is induced to become a character and then to mumble and emote… generally ruining the audience’s enjoyment of the play.

If we seek social harmony, harmonious usage should be preferred to cacophonous expressions. Most people avoid vulgarity and even profanity because they do not contribute to good relationships.

Which is better: raw human emotion, the kind that overwhelms your language and makes you feel authentic--while also making you sound like a fool-- or good usage, representing a goal toward which everyone can strive.

As Kamm argues, the war against good usage is a war against propriety. It is also a war against decorum, about the impulse to keep your private feelings more private.

Kamm explains where it all comes from:

Prescriptive style guides like Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” are the direct descendants of 18th-century grammarians who first defined what it was to speak “proper English.” In fact, these grammarians really just meant the dialect that grew up in and around London; their manuals were intended to teach propriety to an emerging merchant class.

Is there something wrong with propriety? Does Kamm believe that different people should use different table manners at dinner? Clearly, one might make the argument that the way you hold a spoon or a knife is not graven in stone, but still do you want each individual to have his own table manners?

Of course, if you are watching a movie in which people demonstrate very poor table manners—think La Grande Bouffe—you might find it dramatically compelling. If you should happen to be dining with people who eat like pigs, you will not find it quite as engaging.


Ares Olympus said...

There seem to be a a number of different assertions here, and it doesn't seem completely helpful to mix them.

First "academics cannot write", and so maybe we're just talking about writing?

And a categorical explanation "they write that way because they do not know what they are talking about."

Along with an ideal "If you know your subject and are not trying to be willfully obscure, you should state your point clearly, concisely… and, dare I say, grammatically."

But what about this concisely requirement? Before you can write concisely you have to have a common understanding of a subject, so what is concise to someone in your field of inquiry is incomprensible to anyone else.

But I can agree with conciseness, and I'm a visual thinker, and they say a picture is worth a 1000 words, so if I wanted to be concise, I'd have a small number of words, and a large number of pictures and diagrams that express a "map" of what I'm talking about. And then I'd have more confidence to try to express some complicated relations where my reader could go back and forth between my diagrams and my words, and hopefully after a few of these back and forth focused attention, my words might make more sense.

But there's another claim, that writers who are hard to read must be doing it on purpose, and that certainly is possible, but seems a harsh judgement, but certainly laziness and skill are involved, and being smart in one subject doesn't guarantee you'll be a good communicator in speaking or writing.

Still on the grounds of "willfully obscure" I can imagine in the academic world of "publish or perish", perhaps quantity beats quality, and the more you can intimidate your peer reviewers, the easier you can sail on to the next fabricated study or whatever.

But anyway, its unclear to me that any of issues are related to proper english.

Also I'm not sure what implication should be taken from Noam Chomsky's observations. Yes, there's clearly some sort of instinctual, intuitive skill in grammar, but that doesn't mean there's a singular set of rules that are derived from that instinct. In fact I'd guess there's probably a dozen contradictory set of rules that all work separately, and work together because we have crazy amazing minds, and so there will always be exceptions for every rule, and the linguists can make sense of those exceptions by the context of other self-consistent rules.

So really the problem is language changes, and we prefer the language we're used to, and can get annoyed when people speak differently.

And English being the ultimate mutt of many languages has the least consistency, and the most complex rules, but maybe also the most forgiving for "free expression", whether or not that's wise or helpful.

It's probably less wise in writing, but a chance to learn in spoken language, especially if you can keep your mouth closed long enough to figure out if the person completely misinterprets what you just said.

For most of us perhaps, we can get away with being lazy, but I'm sure for some occuptations, skillful use of language does convey a sense of status, and also can be uses can conceal igorance in vacuous jargon and emotion-tinged words that mean nothing except to disarm all critical thinking, all within the loving hands of perfect grammar.

So that's a good reason for me to worry less about perfect grammar in myself or others.

But it also brings up the question how to correct bad grammar in others, and the answer I think is to repeat what the person said, but as a question, while subtly correcting the grammar and when the other person confirms that's what they said, perhaps some unconscious part of their brain registers the correction?

Like my pet peeve since childhood is when someone asks "Can you borrow me $10?" And I learned long ago to confirm "You want me to lend you $10?"

Its fun to feel superior for a moment.

sestamibi said...

"In truth, they write that way because they do not know what they are talking about."

And they don't want you to know that either. They just want you to hold them in exalted status.

Sam L. said...

"And yet, what makes you think that the purpose of writing is to express yourself. Writing is more about communicating with a reader." One must express oneself so the the reader/hearer can understand what you are saying, and get the point you are making.

"Since Kamm is British he understands that more formal speech signifies membership in a higher class. " It's in one's best interest to be able to do that.

Larry Sheldon said...

"Express myself" -- Like squeezing juice out of a lemon?

"right of free speech" -- I have no idea what the actually means without an exercised "right to remain silent".

"let it all hang out".

And the list of phrases relating to the transmitters rights goes on, but how about some consideration for purpose, and some concern for the uncared-for receiver and his rights, and some recognition for the unseen mechanisms--conversation, communication, transfer of content and emotion.

No. Yo do night have a "right of free speech". You have a right to live in an environment where the Authority is forbidden to make any law regarding speech.

And it is really overdue--we desperately need for the Authority to get out of the business of writing laws regarding speech.

And yo8u transmitters--time for you to think through what yiu are doing and consider the audience and he innocent bystanders.

Consider the differences of effectiveness of, say any evening in Ferguson lately, and Glenn Becks meeting in the National Mall several years ago.

Anonymous said...

Dennis said...

First one must consider that the written language is, in many ways, a poor communicator of ideas, et al. It is why we have gestures, body language and other forms of communication to aid in understanding and even this often does not work. Inflection can come to be quite important.
Second, one has to consider that in various regions of the country words have different connotations and even different definitions which create a great deal of confusion and problems communicating.
Third, we have the constant additions of words that have so many meanings that one has to know the context in which the word is used. Take the word "Bad."
Fourth, one has the constant "bastardization" of language itself.
One of the reason to in favor of some sort of rules is to try to aid in communication between people. Without that there is far more confusion that leads to hostility. Linguistics and philology are important for a reason. I find it surprising that we even come close to communicating.
One has to recognize that academe has done every thing possible to develop a lot of verbiage meant to convey nothing. It is not meant to communicate. It is meant to obfuscate, dissemble and generally mislead.
Suffice it to say that a set of rules and proper English is important to almost every thing we do for if we cannot communicate effectively we are destined to do real damage to ourselves and those around us. Words are important.

Sam L. said...

I once had a short conversation with a man I'd just met, and he used a word common to both of us, but with incompatible meanings. He asked a question; I answered; he was shocked/appalled/discombobulated until I told him that clearly what he meant and I meant were different, and explained what that word meant to me. He explained what he meant, and I immediately understood his reaction.

Monica said...

I'd so much rather spend time reading and re-reading the likes of Dickens, Fielding, Elliot, and Shakespeare (ok, I'm a snob!) than trying to buy into Mr. Kamm's ravings about "prescriptive" grammars and formal vs. idiomatic or regional locutions, bla bla bla. He strikes me as part of the (unfortunately) typical British elite who run around apologizing for greatness and genius, the ones who have thrown the baby ( great literature ) out with the bathwater (great history/culture). It gets so tiresome. Try walking into a highschool classroom in France where I teach English and tell the kids, no, it's ok to write as you speak!!!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Monica. I second your feelings.