English varieties (was: Word Order)

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Wed Apr 6 18:22:56 EDT 2005

minnow at belfry.org.uk wrote:

>>Like several other posters, I also was brought up to speak a standard 
>>(read 'middle-class') variety, and have 'It is I' and 'whom' in my 
>>idiolect. But I nevertheless hold that they are part of a 'learned' 
>>language that is acquired naturally by nobody.
>So where do you (and maybe Pinker) stand on such gloriosities as "the
>car careened down the road" or "I'm really disinterested in that
>subject"?  No, forget it, those are just getting the meaning wrong plain
>and simple, rather than rules of grammar.  I'm wondering how you and
>Pinker think language is acquired if not by being taught, to be honest:
>the teaching may taking the form of talking to the infant, and it seems
>to be the case that infants never spoken to don't learn speech, but why
>is talking to an infant not "teaching" it?
Yes, these are simply matters of vocabulary rather than grammar.
But what a word *means* is what people (in general, or perhaps some 
group of people) use and understand it to mean.
Agreed that once upon a time 'careen' meant only 'to turn a ship over 
and scrape it',
but anybody who claims that it does not now mean 'move apparently out of 
or something of the sort is plain wrong. You (or I) might choose not to 
use it in that
sense; we might perversely refuse to understand it in that sense (but 
this would be a
deliberate choice); but we do not have the power to remove the meaning.
As for 'distinterested', is this a troll? I would have thought that you 
in particular were
aware that 'disinterested' is recorded some fifty years earlier in the 
sense of 'unconcerned'
than in the sense of 'impartial'.

As for how language is learnt: it is indeed necessary for infants to 
hear language spoken around
them (it has been shown not to be sufficient, for example, for hearing 
children of deaf parents
to be plonked in front of the television all day).
But there is ample evidence from different cultures round the world that 
children do not need to
be actively taught, or even need to be directly spoken to, in order to 
acquire a normal grasp of
language. (My knowledge of this is from Pinker, but I'm sure he gives 

>>I think I'll leave it there ....
>I know you get all Cross about *Eats, Shoots and Leaves*, but I think
>it's in that book that the old suggestion about "if it doesn't work or
>you aren't sure how it should go, re-cast the sentence" is repeated, and
>that has been coming to my mind with increasing frequency as I've been
>reading this thread. If we can't agree about "It was Jim to whom it
>happened/who it happened to", maybe it would be simpler to say "It
>happened to Jim" and not be convoluted about it anyway? And everyone
>laying off the passive voice most of the time would probably be a great
>straightener of knotted grammar too.
I agree absolutely, and so does Pinker. Towards the end of TLI, he 
suggests that
urging writers to reread and rewrite, reread and rewrite, would do far 
more for
comprehensibility than all the curmudgeonly strictures about participles 
and apostrophes.
But you can't quite imagine a blimp writing to the Telegraph to complain 
that young
people aren't rewriting their essays enough times!

On which point, I'll have one more rant before I go to bed. Pedants 
quite often claim
that their strictures aid clarity and avoid ambiguity. This is on the 
whole false. It is
all too possible to write turgid gobbledegook that satisfies all the 
grammarians' rules; and
conversely, if people are left to write as they want to, without 
worrying about the rules,
they are likely to be clear. Not necessarily of course (especially if 
they have never been
encouraged to read over what they wrote). But there is no necessary 
correlation between
clarity and following the rules.

>BTW, obDWJ and getting this back where I think it started, word order in
>English and in particular the order in which adjectives ought to happen,
>DWJ points out that it can be very effective as an attention-grabber if
>one deliberately uses adjectives in an unfamiliar order and makes the
>reader go "eh?" occasionally.  She says she does it on purpose
>sometimes, but I haven't found any examples on a quick skim.
I like this idea. I wonder where she does it.


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