The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Archive for May 2012

The Vanity of the Grammar Police

leave a comment »

A promotion for a retailer that shall remain nameless came in the mail offering “up to” $20 in rewards for sharing our phone number and email address, presumably to send us spam.

I hate that way of speaking. Young mothers tell their very young children to share to keep the greedy little monsters from squabbling over snacks and toys. Share what? Really! Like the rest of the rest of the Internet terminology. I hate it all. Groups, friends, likes, interests, circles, tweets. These are all dumb euphemisms urging us to blurt out the trivia on our minds.

The point is that none of this language existed 10 years ago. Where did it come from? It seems that such blatant obfuscation must be rotten. Could it be the final descent of the West? The implosion of our culture?

No, I don’t think so. Sure, all this baby talk is annoying, just something used by advertisers to lull their victims into witless purchasing, greedy little children that we are.

Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

Rex Harrison in the movie version of the musical My Fair Lady, which was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, a send-up of British upper class vanities.

Despite their schemes, no, I don’t want to join the grammar police, the authoritarians who want to decide what words to let in the language, what grammatical fillips are legal, both of which constantly change with or without professors or academies.

I hate it when people complain about others who confuse one word with another — be it “they’re”, “their” and “there”, or something like “imply” and “infer”. What they all mean is that they are on the right side of the slender line between the intelligent, well bred classes and the unwashed. Basically, they know damn well what the other people are saying, but they just want to show off.

The sadness of it all is that most of them don’t know a participle from a particle, nor any other of the terminology of syntax, and furthermore, nor should they.

I know lots of very intelligent, interesting people who don’t know a thing about grammar or its jargon. Most of them speak a brand of English that is more or less correct, and most of them cannot say why it’s correct. Still, nearly everyone has one or two rules they can spout off.

Many newspapers and magazines like to run stories about language, the study of it and its putative decline. In my 10 years as a New York Times editor, I’d say most of the writers didn’t know grammar, but spoke, and wrote, more or less correctly. Most of the editors who worked alongside me never understood the directives issued by the former czar of the editing apparatus, but it never stopped him from issuing them.

This doesn’t stop journalists from being intrigued by linguistics. I was struck by the vitriol in various reviews of a book called The Language Wars by a Brit named Henry Hitchings. I started reading it, but couldn’t get very far. Hitchings may or may not be knocking down the straw men who write dictionaries, style guides and what not. He takes sides in the war between prescriptives and descriptives. But it’s one of many, many quirks of our culture that I can easily ignore.

I do know something about grammar. I learned some of it in high school, but it was not regularly taught to college-bound kids, but only to the dumber kids with whom I took one class. I learned more and something about linguistics, later as an adult in preparation to becoming a computational linguist with a Phd and all that. I don’t investigate exotic tribes in the Brazilian jungle, or argue about the theories of Noam Chomsky or anyone else. What I do could be described as trying to figure out just how big the gulf is between human languages and machines, and if anything useful can be done despite it.

I think that gulf is huge, IBM and Watson notwithstanding. One of the obvious reasons is that language constantly changes. New words come. Old ones change their meaning. Hardly anyone alive would be able to understand Shakespeare and his Elizabethan English. Grammar itself changes, and it varies from place to place.

Voltaire gave us the underlying reason in 18th century why language is not strictly mechanical. My apologies to translation purists, but it goes something like this: “The only reason people talk is to hide their thoughts, and the only reason people think is to justify their desires.” Without any desires, even for the juice that keeps its LED lights blinking, computers just aren’t remotely like us. We do nothing but want. In order to program a machine to behave like us, we’d first have to admit what we want.

Furthermore, just so no one gets the wrong idea, language was not a supernatural gift bestowed on humans. It evolved, and it evolved only in human beings. Ask a linguist for the details, but there’s something unique about the human brain — whether it’s a universal grammar or a unique way to represent meaning in the brain.

The ability of human beings to talk is just about the most marvelous thing I’ve ever thought about. No one ever seems to need to know any rules to understand and be understood. Children pick up language automatically, and within two or three years, completely on their own, they are accomplished liars. If exposed to two languages, they learn both. What stops us grown ups, is not grammar but our ability to pick out or to vocalize the phonemes of another language after we are children.

Read Orwell for the politics. He’s largely right about what he reported on postwar Britain; read Folwer for fun, because he’s good at unstuffing shirts. The same might even be said about William Safire, but get over your various language vanities. You don’t need them for comprehension, for elegance, or for persuasiveness, for manipulation.

Your complaints about the decline of proper English are only revealing your desire for entry into the elite.


Written by theunbiasedeye

May 22, 2012 at 10:44 am