[DWJ] other things

Colin Fine colin at fine.me.uk
Tue Jun 24 13:59:48 EDT 2008

Minnow wrote:
>> Minnow wrote:
>>> Colin has no time for spelling (and probably loves the idea of cutting
>>> everyone off from all literature published before his or her lifetime by
>>> rationalising the spelling so that nobody could read that nasty old stuff
>>> any more)
>> That is a calumny!
> I hav herd yu argyu for fonetik.  It is klerer, I am told.  Lyk ITA.
I don't think you have. I feel sure I should remember having argued from 
such an uncharacteristic position. I may have argued that if some people 
want to write phonetically I see no reason to censure them, but that is 
a very different thing.
>>>> Now Minnow will probably spit pebbles at me.
>>> Too much like hard work, dear boy.  I've just bought a house and cannot
>>> away with your bumble-bees.
>> A house? I wish you well to wear it.
> Why thank you!
> It does have a swimming-pool... but if there is waterweed in that, there is
> a problem with the filter, so I shall have to confine myself to the pond --
> with frog, I am told, but I expect I can come to some sort of amphibious
> treaty with the creature.
Mutual respect and non-interference.

 From other mails:

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

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 have never been able to understand why if the one matters, the other

I'm not quite sure what the one and the other were in this. 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. 

I absolutely agree with you about what you call fuzzy thinking. Something that gets me even hotter under the collar than insistence on grammatical norms is the uncritical thinking that is often seen in round-robins and petitions.

> >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.

I sit corrected. I have no memory of this. 

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.

Accepted. But as I indicated above, many (most?) such errors do not leave you in such confusion, and conversely some perfectly grammatical paragraphs do engender just such confusion (see the parallel discussion on academics, he said, casting nasturtiums). This argument is often trotted out to rationalise people's insistence on prescriptive grammar and spelling, and it is mostly specious. 

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.

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. 

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

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).

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.

No disagreeement.

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.)

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. 

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.

I agree that they would be well-advised to find out the presently-accepted rules. I don't agree that they will necessarily follow them. 
However, I accept your general point: I did not have in mind people for whom language is the tool of their trade, and was certainly not referring to deliberate flouting of rules.


More information about the Dwj mailing list