[DWJ] other things

Colin Fine colin at fine.me.uk
Thu Aug 7 17:41:45 EDT 2008

Minnow wrote:
> A long time ago I wrote a careful answer to a post of Colin's and left it
> to simmer for a day or two so I could re-read it and check that it said
> whjat I meant.  Then I went off to Finland and forgot about it.  Maybe
> it'll get some others of the rather empty list arguing, so I'll post it
> now!  ;-)
>>> Grammar is not a matter of life and death if it is messed with, would be
>>> the argument here (I read your post out to DWJ on the phone, and she
>>> laughed delightedly and then said 'yes but' because she has met this: one
>>> of her sons is on the arts side, another on the maths).  If someone tampers
>>> with the laws of physics, thinking that precision doesn't matter, or uses
>>> centimetres instead of inches in their calculations for instance, the
>>> effect can be literally fatal: the concrete mixed to the wrong
>>> specifications makes the house fall down, the train comes off the wonky
>>> rails at speed, or the comms for the space project don't work, or whatever
>>> else.  Nobody is yet reported as having had a fatal stroke when faced with
>>> a wilfully bad bit of grammar: if they did, they died before they could say
>>> so!
>> Well, sometimes it can be, as Aimee pointed out. But generally speaking,
>> ambiguity is created not by not following the 'rules' but by, well,
>> being ambiguous. Following the rules of prescriptive grammar is neither
>> necessary nor sufficient for clarity. (Aimee's example is to do with a
>> failure to use punctuation to represent the rhythms and cadences of
>> speech: I suspect that people who have difficulty with punctuation have
>> been subject to teaching by rules, rather than by speaking aloud and
>> choosing their punctuation to reflect how they speak. I have no direct
>> evidence for this conclusion, however).
> I think I may want to make some sort of distinction between 'proscriptive'
> as in 'you ought not to do that' and oh, I don't know, 'prescriptive' as in
> 'it works better if you do this'.  I don't generally see a prescription as
> being a prohibition, rather a recommendation.
Well 'prescriptive grammar' is something of a term of art in linguistics 
these days - referring to the 'grammar' that is (or used to be) taught 
in schools, as opposed to the 'grammar' that every native speaker of a 
language uses effortlessly all the time.
> I would also say that a lot of language as she is spoke is a matter of
> convention: things like the order in which it is usual to say 'the large
> round red blob' rather than 'the red round large blob' unless there is a
> reason (to make the point that it is importantly a red, or a large, or a
> round blob rather then a blue or a small or an oval one), or using a
> quotation-phrase like 'as she is spoke' rather than the more usual 'as it
> is spoken'.  This is not 'taught at school' as a rule, but boy does it jump
> out and bite the reader/listener if it is deviated from.  (Small prize for
> anyone working that sentence so that it doesn't end in 'from' and still
> makes sense?)
Of course a lot of language is a matter of convention: in fact *all* of 
it is!

And you delightfully make a point I was going to make: that rule is not 
taught in school because it does not need to be; because it *is* a part 
of the natural grammar of the language, and is (usually unconsciously) 
known to every native speaker. In this it contrasts with rules of 
prescriptive grammar (such as eschewing final prepositions) which have 
to be taught because they are in some strong sense not natural.

>>> I have never been able to understand why if the one matters, the other
>>> doesn't.
>> I'm not quite sure what the one and the other were in this.
> Sciences and arts, roughly speaking, I think.
Well, it depends what you mean by 'matters'. It certainly used to be the 
case in what was called polite society that there were some subjects 
that it was social suicide not to pretend to some knowledge of, and 
others which of which ignorance was certainly no handicap and possibly 
an advantage. Generally anything scientific or technical was in the 
second group.
>> I'm suggesting that following the rules of prescriptive grammar are
>> approximately as important as following the rules of dress, or cookery -
>> but my observation is that many people make them much more so.
> So for instance 'following... are' is seen as more of a solecism than
> adding a pink spotted bow-tie to formal funeral attire, or a dash of
> cinnamon to a dish.  :-)  And maybe they (or it) are (or is) so seen; and
> if what is in question is something related to language, as opposed to
> clothing or cookery, it should be?
No, my point is that it is not seen as a 'solecism' at all (ie a social 
error), but as wrong in some objective sense.
> I do not give one single damn about the actuality of say a split
> infinitive, so long as it doesn't make the meaning unclear.  I do mind it
> if someone whose livelihood is writing writes in a way that makes the
> reader need to go back and re-read a sentence to work out what the author
> is getting at in that sentence, or (for example) who is the actor and who
> the actee (and here I am avoiding 'subject' and 'object' because I have
> encountered 'subject' as being 'one who is subjected to the act' rather
> than 'one acting').
Hear, hear.
>>> I am not sure I can accept that fully, because eg mathematics, carpentry,
>>> scuba-diving, are all things that require to be *taught* to almost every
>>> human being who wishes to deal with them: very few infants have any of
>>> these by 'instinct' or 'reflex', all are learned skills.
>> Indeed. But language is something that every human does share - and on
>> which many people believe themselves qualified to judge everybody else.
> People *do* judge everyone else, all the time about everything, and believe
> they are qualified to do so (and profoundly pity anyone who 'doesn't have
> any judgement', quite often)[1].  deborah has pointed out that in some
> circles, individuals are judged extensively by their mode of dress; in some
> the ownership of money or possessions or the type of possessions is a prime
> criterion for judgement; in some by the preferred recreation; in some it is
> accent or the colour of skin or any one of dozens of other things, many of
> them not things that can be altered by the individual judged by them.  And
> everyone feels qualified to judge every other person s/he encounters, by
> any criteria selected.  The thing I feel important here is whether the
> criteria selected are relevant to the point of the judgement.  For
> instance, whether someone stammers or not is nothing whatever to do with
> his or her ability or suitability to design a necklace, but a lot to do
> with his or her ability or suitability to record the audiotape of a book...
> And someone who can't spell to save his or her life is not the ideal
> person to compile a dictionary, I wouldn't have thought.  Nor is an
> anumerate the person to choose as an engineer, probably; and good
> programming requires precise use of language, doesn't it?
Indeed. And the fact that, as you say, people do judge, all the time, 
means that it is often well worth understanding the rules of grammar, 
spelling or fashion, and making conscious choices about following them.
>>> Is it acceptable to judge the worth of a mathematician *as a mathematician*
>>> by whether s/he habitually misuses the 'punctuation' of maths by carelessly
>>> applying the wrong punctuation in reasoning, as it might be the brackets
>>> that have an accepted 'coded meaning' in any equation, or the + and -
>>> signs?  Is it acceptable to judge the worth of a carpenter *as a carpenter*
>>> by whether s/he uses a chisel for inserting a screw or tries to shape wood
>>> using a screwdriver?  A diver *as a diver* by whether s/he breathes in
>>> through his/her nose and out through his/her mouth rather than vice versa?
>> Of course not. But I didn't think that that was the issue before us.
> It is to a certain extent, because I was thinking about not the everyday
> use of the language as a mode of spoken communication, but the use of that
> language written down.  We all *know* that in speech, one doesn't need
> smileys because the tone of voice says 'I am smiling' even if the face is
> not visible; in an email, some way to indicate 'that was a joke' is needed,
> lest offence be given by mistake.  Punctuation in writing fulfils some of
> that clarifying function.
But even in writing, there are many different contexts, for which 
different standards are appropriate. To insist on 'correct' spelling and 
grammar in a shopping list, a personal diary, or an informal note to 
somebody would be fatuous. It's not the fact of writing that matters, 
but the formality of context.
And of course text-message English has its own grammar, dinosaurs like 
me who almost never abbreviate notwithstanding.

>>> I would judge someone whose business is the use of words (a journalist, an
>>> author, a speaker, an advertising-copy writer) in order to make a point or
>>> persuade an audience on his or her use of words, by that person's use of
>>> words.  How else is s/he to be judged, ultimately, in relation to his/her
>>> business?
> (and that's the follow-up to the previous paragraph)
>> Absolutely. And conformance to norms - or departure from them - is one of
>> the tools in the wordsmith's toolbox. Anybody who is using words
>> professionally or for influence would be very well advised to understand
>> the accepted rules for using them. But even here, there is more than one
>> set: in some company, speaking the way you were taught in school will risk
>> losing your audience (not, probably, by confusing them, but by alienating
>> them).
> Yes, true.  And some people are better at getting this right than others,
> just as some are better at dress-design or mathematics or cookery than
> others.
> BUT nobody argues that a cack-handed designer or poor cook is *as entitled
> to be considered right about that business* as someone who is good at the
> job, whereas someone who can't spell is deemed for some reason to have as
> good an opinion in the matter as someone who can, or at least to be treated
> as though they were as good at it as someone who could.
Um. I think this is a non-sequitur. Those who think spelling is 
important (in a given context) will mark down those who can't spell; 
those who think that it is not important in that context won't be 
bothered. I don't see where 'as good an opinion' comes into it.

>>> It's your perception, here, rather than a universal rule, as to the
>>> importance or otherwise of getting the basic building-blocks of any
>>> particular matter appropriately deployed.  The precise cut of a jacket is
>>> not important in particular to you or to me, though I presume that it is to
>>> a fashion pundit, just as different authors have different ways of using
>>> words (styles) and this may matter to you and me but may not to a
>>> sports-editor; wearing that jacket on your upper half rather than on your
>>> nether limbs probably *is* important to all four postulated parties here.
>>> let alone to the wearer when s/he tried to walk.  (And Pat Silver is so
>>> allergic to cinnamon that a very small amount makes her vomit painfully for
>>> as much as twenty-four hours: in her case you've used a really bad example,
>>> though I do take your point as a general rule.)
> Sorry: for 'your' read 'the individual's' above.  That's one of the
> linguistic hassles I fall into, that the second person looks as if I mean
> 'you personally' whereas it's just me trying to avoid saying 'one' all the
> time instead.  Bah.
>> No, I think it's a good example. To Pat this is a crucial distinction,
>> while to others it may not be noticeable until their attention is drawn to
>> it.
> Here we'll have to agree to differ.  Not poisoning even one person seems to
> me to be important, more so than sartorial bloopers or a misplaced
> semi-colon or two.
Yes, if we're serving something to Pat. I wasn't aware (and I guess most 
people are not) that cinnamon is poisonous to some people.
It's down to context again.

> [1] for instance, I abreacte to people who try to instruct me that poor use
> of language doesn't matter, and react favourably to people who agree with
> me that it is in fact a thing of some importance (though not necessarily of
> paramount importance).  That's a judgement, right?  And I feel entitled to
> make it, just as I will use my judgement to temper my behaviour and not
> talk about my pet academic subject to someone who has no interest in it.  I
> don't expect the person using the language badly to *do* anything about it,
> nor even say that they should, but I am absolutely certain to have that
> judgement as part of my total picture of the person.  ('Nice bloke, trust
> him with my wallet, makes a brilliant omelette, can't spell for toffee, I
> wish he'd let someone else choose his shirts for him, and if I ever need
> advice about pharmacy or taxidermy I'll ask him because he really knows a
> lot about those.')
There are two very different sorts of judgment. One is 'using our 
judgment' to determine whether a particular object, view, utterance, 
behaviour or whatever is pleasing, harmonious, appropriate to the 
context, satisfactory to our needs, competently executed .... or not.
The other is making (usually) snap judgments about the worth of other 
people. I try not to do this, though I certainly do it sometimes.


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