Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fry's Wordsmithery

Just a quick post before I brave the London Underground* and head into work.

I've made my views pretty clear about the English language during the three year lifespan of this blog. English is a glorious, ever-evolving beastie and I delight in discovering new words, unearthing obscure old ones and giggling at outrageously naughty ones. I pretty much set out my stall on language in this post of October 2007, but it does no harm to reiterate my viewpoint now and again.

It comes down to a simple philosophy: For communication to occur, sender and reciever should be able to understand each other. That's what language is for. And as long as people can communicate clearly and unambiguously using spoken and written words, no other rules are needed. Daily Mail readers can pop a head vein over the distinction between 'less' and 'fewer' if they want to, but I won't be losing any sleep over the 'Six items or less' signs at Tesco. I understand the difference and that 'fewer' is the more correct. But do I give a damn? Hell no. The message is still clear. I've worked for many years with Plain English Campaign and their view mirrors mine - Clarity over traditionalism. I abhor the idea that some long dead, crusty old grammarian insists that I cannot split an infinitive. I will bloody well split one if I like! And I'll start sentences with 'and'. I'll even end sentences with prepositions if I want to. As Churchill once said (or something similar) this is something up with which I shall not put.

So, if you're like me, you'll probably enjoy this fabulous new essay by Stephen Fry - Don't mind your language. I know I did.

But if you're the sort of person who's gone all wobbly because I just started this sentence with 'but', go and have a lie down and drape a warm flannel over your cold sweaty forehead.

*Thankfully not the London Underground featured in my NaNoWriMo novel in the making - Orpheus on the Underground. Go and have a read here.


Diane said...

I love this post! I spend a lot of time correcting other peoples' grammar (not to be rude - it's what I do for a living!) and minding my own. But when I write for ME, I move into my own style, which doesn't always conform to the standard rules of grammar. And. I. Don't. Care. Damn it!

Persephone said...

When I was teaching ESL to advanced students, I was often queried about how English speakers ignore their own rules. I responded with the old adage Know the rules before you break them. I have no problem with someone beginning a sentence with "but", if it is clear from his/her general writing that this is a stylistic choice. Therefore, I will bypass the warm flannel on that account. However, your spelling of "receiver" has made me somewhat faint. I'm off to re-fortify myself with some breakfast....

Stevyn Colgan said...

Diane - Good for you. Persephone's comment mentions about knowing the rules before you can break them ... but I'm not convinced that many of the rules are valid anyway. Let's face it, people like Shakespeare were producing some of the most beautiful prose ever written when even spelling wasn't fixed, let alone rules of grammar and punctuation.

Persephone - Eek! I'm normally pretty good with the spelling. But I'm not infallible and I do make silly mistakes and typos. Occasionally, I even suffer a form of word-blindness when I just can't remember how to spell something stupidly simple. Like reciever (warm flannel on standby!), which just rolled onto the page without me even noticing it. But you didunderstand what I'd written didn't you ... which sort of proves my point! x

Persephone said...

I stand by the adage (which, by the way, applies to so much more than language). There is a world of difference between breaking a rule to make a point or create an effect, and breaking the rules because one simply doesn't know any better. Therefore, the validity of the rules is not the point. You know what the rules are; you choose to break them. That's the power of both knowledge and choice. Consider swear words, for example. ESL students don't know when to use them and the effects can be disastrous. Swear words in the correct setting are harmless. Used in an incorrect setting with full knowledge of the incorrectness, they can be shocking and powerful. Used ignorantly in the incorrect setting, they can actually cause damage.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone - I am happy to concede that while rules exist, you really should understand them before you break them. That way, as you say, there is conscious choice. My contention is that many of the rules are a complete nonsense; a ridiculous attempt to make English fit the rules of Latin. The not splitting of infinitives is a case in point. Just because you can't split an infinitive in Latin doesn't automatically mean you shouldn't do it in English. Similarly, what harm is there in starting a sentence with 'and' or 'but'?

I also agree that some rules are necessary for clarity. But a lot of the rules I was taught at school - and I was lucky enough to have a good English education - have turned out to be restrictive and occasionally pointless. They've done nothing to clarify what I've written and they've certainly been no barrier to me getting into print.

The main thrust of the article was to ask the pedants to just chill out a bit. Language is there to be manipulated, moulded, beaten up, teased and tweaked and generally enjoyed. As Stephen says, people don't spend enough time taking pleasure from it. They're far too busy bemoaning the change in meaning of the word 'gay' or thumping people over wrong apostrophe usage. I do suffer a little twitch of angst when I see apple's on display on a greengrocer's counter. But equally I know that I can pop in there and buy a Granny Smith. Western civilisation is not going to crumble because Mr Patel doesn't understand the rules of punctuation. And when there are more Mr Patels than grammar teachers we have to accept that it's popular usage that drives change in language.

I'm sure that apostrophes in plural acronyms (PC's, CD's etc.) will become the norm because, rules or no rules, it's what most people do these days. Will it really do any harm if it does?

As for swearing ... that's a subject I've posted about at length before. I agree that it's all about context and knowing when and where is appropriate. But once again, I come back to 'the rules' that dictate if one word is bad while another is good. It's madness. And the same madness is reflected in the movies where shooting, stabbing, maiming, killing, kidnapping, abusing and other activities appear to be perfectly acceptable material for an audience while two people expressing a passion for each other in bed is deemed to be rude or even obscene. We've got it all upside-down!

I do enjoy these discussions! x

willow said...

((But)), I just like the word "wordsmithery". It has a nice flow to it, especially when said with a British accent.

Jon M said...

I think you're right, Steve. The language has never stood still and I hate it when it is used as a club to beat someone with or to belittle others.

Debby said...

Stevyn: I neither went wobbly or needed a cold flannel after reading your post. I did pop over to the comments right away, being afraid that grammar gods would rain bolts of lightning at you.

Seeing that this has not happened, well, I ain't gonna worry bout no grammar neither.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - It is a nice word isn't it? And so very probably completely made up.

Jon - Cheers Jon. I don't decry correctness. I just don't understand those who cling tenaciously to the rules when there's really no need to do so. Of course, this is purely a personal view - and that's all it ever can be.

Debby - Good fer you sister. I ain't gonna worry me none neither.

doctawho42 said...

Hehe. Yeah, I read his blog last week, and was going to say something about it then, but my time went all sqooshh, and I forgot about it.
He wrote something very similar to this in the 80's, when he was doing newspaper columns, (Fry holds the record for saying fuck in one live broadcast!)
I took what he said to heart, and from then on, offended all my English teachers (all breathtaking pedants). Never looked back.

However, I do know the rules. I have some real maths nerds in my class who really can't construct a sentence to save their life.

Piers said...

I deliberately and with malice aforethought corrected "25 words or fewer" to "25 words or less" while copy-editing the other day.

Partly because it's clearer and less fussy.

And partly because I'm a contrary bastard.

chris hale said...

I think what makes English as a language so exciting is that it is constantly evolving; just imagine if we had a body like the Academie Française that was dedicated to stamping out foreign incursions? What on earth would we call a curry, a sauna or a verandah? We (oh, alright, I!) may not like the incursion of the language of the drug dealer or 'gangsta' into our word-hoard, but such 'borrowings' have been around since time immemorial. After all, the Anglo-Saxons kept cows, sheep and pigs; but it was the Normans who made them into beef, mutton and pork!

In the world of the euphemism, UK English undoubtedly rules. Yes, I know the US can 'terminate' someone 'with extreme prejudice', but it takes a British Home Secretary to use the expression 'community resilience' when she means 'extremism'. Equally, I feel sure we have more expressions for drunkenness in English than in any other language. Perhaps that's because we are more often drunk than most other societies. Discuss.

With regard to punctuation, I found Lynne Truss' Eats, shoots and leaves mildly amusing, and (sadly) I do sometimes get irritated when I see 'Cabbage's', but it's better that people should try to express themselves and perhaps fall down in the grammar/punctuation department, than not try at all.

Long may this language debate continue. I hope to add my own two penn'orth at some stage.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Docta - He certainly did! The essay in question (called 'Saying Fuck') is in his first book Paperweight. By the way, he does drop in on my blog periodically so he will enjoy this spirited conversation.

Piers - Aha! A man after my own perverse nature! The whole 'fewer' and 'less' debate is one that, I'm sure, will keep certain tabloids frothing at the mouth for years to come while the rest of us get on with our lives.

Chris - I won't lie. I do go ever so slightly clammy at the sight of bad punctuation and I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Truss's book. However, I refuse to turn into one of those people who, like an ex-smoker who has embraced their new lifestyle with evangelical zeal, becomes the scourge of faggers everywhere. Oh no.

I wonder if we have so many words for drunkenness for the same reason that Inuit have so many words for snow ... ubiquity.