[DWJ] timetravel/and other things

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue Jun 24 07:37:20 EDT 2008

I'm cutting a fair bit because I know that if Colin and I get to arguing it
starts to happen by the ream rather than the paragraph... :-)

lizzie wrote:

>> You know, nobody makes fun of people with perfect pitch for disliking
>> music that's out of tune.  Nobody objects to being precise about
>> anything that's mathematical, really.  If there was a sign up saying
>> that 2 + 2 = 17 (and it wasn't an obvious joke), it would come right
>> down and be fixed right away, and no one would think anything of it.
>> But have an ear for grammar instead of music, or find  the mathematics
>> of grammar more appealing than that of numbers, and you're out of
>> luck.
>> Grammar is so unfashionable.

and Colin repsonded

>That's a very interesting argument, that I haven't heard before. I'm
>glad you brought it up.

I have produced precisely this point.  Blackpool.  Mid-evening.  At a table
in the concourse of the Winter Gardens.  At least one person got so fed up
with us that he got up and went away.  You had been exposed to a (possibly
Tom Kirk's?) copy of *Eats Shoots and Leaves* and were feeling stroppy at
the time so you may have missed it in the general sound and fury.

>As a musician and a some-time mathematician I understand what you're
>saying, and I'm looking into myself to see why I don't accept the

[snip of acceptance of some of your points, and see my other post]

>To me, going round adding apostrophes to people's signs is like going up
>to strangers and adjusting their clothing. It is asserting "I am right
>and you are wrong, and I know best".

There are however circumstances in which the correction of an error of this
sort is not simple bad manners, but the correction of somebody having
written something that is the opposite of what s/he meant, or that is
confusing to the point at which his/her argument is distorted.

>As a student of linguistics I view with wonder and delight the
>magnificent and complex structures of human languages, and the ease with
>which almost every human that has ever lived (barring a few unfortunates
>with impaired mental abilities) has attained /as a child/ a more or less
>complete mastery of one, or often more than one, language. I am sad and
>indignant when I see people effectively discounting this magnificence,
>and asserting that all that matters is the generally arbitrary set of
>rules that comprise prescriptive grammar and writing - which have to be
>taught in schools specifically because they are /not/, in some
>fundamental sense, part of the language. And when I see evidence that
>people are judging the worth of others by their conformance to these
>artificial norms I can become apoplectic.

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.

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?

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

I don't honestly care one way or the other about shop-signs written by
hand: the meaning gets through, though sometimes in spite of rather than
because of what has actually been written.  I *do* find that I care if
someone's CV, over which s/he presumably has spent some time and effort, is
a mangled linguistic mess *if what that person is applying for is a job in
which the use of words will be important*.

In the same way I wouldn't care if someone put up a shelf in his own house
using nails into plaster and rawlplugs into wood, but if I wanted to employ
a carpenter to do the job professionally I would prefer these to be the
other way round, and for the person I employed to be clearly aware (and
clearly to be aware, and to be aware clearly) that there is a difference.

>> I understand why a lot of people don't get the subtle rules of
>> grammar--I don't know them all myself.  But the difference between
>> you're and your is the difference between a Kandinsky and a da Vinci,
>> or an apple pie and chirashi-zushi (sprinkly fish-rice sushi stuff.)
>> Don't say I'm pedantic just because I object to having one substituted
>> for the other.
>No, I believe you are exaggerating it. It is the difference between two
>different cuts of jacket, or between a peach colour that does go with
>the walls and one that doesn't, or between apple pie with and without
>cinnamon. To those whose interest lies in that area it is obvious and
>important; to others with no interest in the matter it might not even be
>noticeable. I understand and honour that you find the difference
>important. But I react when I think you are diminishing people to whom
>it is not important.

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.)

If the language is important enough for someone to be devoting their life
to it *and getting it wrong* (ie to failing to make their point, failing to
persuade, failing to produce a reasoned argument) then it ought to be
important enough for them to find out and follow the presently-accepted
general rules of their chosen trade, I would have thought.  Just as
important, surely, as for a chef to find out how not to use inappropriate
spices and herbs that spoil the dish for the eater.


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