But I am not one of these so-called 'word nerds'/'grammar geeks' who think that, because they've restricted their understanding of language to what it says in the AP Style Book and some half-remembered 'rules' from college composition, they were put on this earth to go around correcting other peoples' language.
Now, this is not to say these people aren't useful. I know why these 'rules' and 'standards' exist, and any writer needs to make himself understood. An editor has to have these skills, and a good editor always makes a good writer better. (A good editor can even make a bad writer better, but a bad editor can make a good writer worse. It's all so complicated.) And I'm certainly not denigrating the profession of proofreader; goodness knows with my failing memory, sausage-like fingers, and damaging intake of drugs and alcohol, I need one. I'm a bit annoyed at people who think they'd be good editors because they are good proofreaders, because those are two very distinct jobs, but they are also both very worthy ones.
I'm really just focusing my annoyance today at one sort of person. This sort of person believes that they are qualified to be a proofreader, an editor, or even a writer because they are good at spotting grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. That doesn't make you an editor, folks; it makes you someone who's good at puzzles. This sort of person, who is almost always a pedantic little shit, also believes that the ability to spot completely harmless typos makes them the intellectual superior of the people who actually make their living writing, for whom language is a living thing, the very thing that makes us human, and not just a collection of rules, which, by applying in a proper way, allows one to 'win'. These are often the same people who think that deliberately violating a rule of language is a 'mistake', and not a deliberate choice, as if there were no such thing as a figure of speech, a linguistic scheme, or a rhetorical technique. They are the people who tell you how your expression would have 'worked better', who misuse the word 'pretentious', who live by Big Leo's Trollin' Tip #3: "If someone makes a spelling or typographical error, everything else about their opinion is rendered valueless." They are people who, despite their professed love of language, wield it like a nun wields a ruler: as an instrument of punishment against those who don't conform, regardless of context or circumstance.
No one reading this needs to be reminded that Stephen Fry is a genius, but a while back, he wrote a rather brilliant blog post in which he discussed, quite perceptively, the multifarious nature of language. He made a lot of great observations (including a stirring defense against those who claim, absurdly, that the French post-structuralists 'destroyed language'), but one of the best bits is towards the end where he goes off on these self-appointed guardians of the integrity of the language. (Naturally, this triggered an invasion of his comments section by the very pedants he was criticizing.)
I'll put it under the cut, but, while this isn't directed at anyone in particular, if you happen to see yourself in there, don't be that guy.
For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable, it seems; so are dance and other athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems, belong to other people; anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be.
I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign”, I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well, I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?
There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories, it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm, and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well, sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.
The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare, who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He tabled the motion and chaired the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’, for instance, might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly, and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.
Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind.
Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.
If I were to direct you to any books about language, I would certainly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, but above that I would rate Guy Deutscher’sThe Unfolding of Language. This brilliant linguist mocks pedantry and the idea of stasis in language with far greater elegance and knowledge than I can. His informed empiricism, in this reader’s opinion, knocks the sometimes tortuously conjectural rationalism of Pinker into a cocked hat.
(c) 2008, Stephen Fry.