It’s Not All Mary Poppins

SaBloBoMo – About Language

I’ve been bad, bad, bad at this book-a-day challenge! Sorry, Sassy!

Still, I do keep on reading! Can’t seem to break myself of the habit. Today’s book is one I hadn’t heard of till earlier this morning. (No, I haven’t finished it yet.)

A bit of background: Last Christmas, I was given “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. I loved it, then passed it on to a fellow language-lover, my friend Bob. Being of the same mind on these things, or so we both thought, we recently launched into a series of conversations over our bi-weekly pint in a local pub, conversations that have probably been a bit of a surprise to both of us.

Now, I like language to be clear. There is a difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, and I knew it when I was ten. It’s just NOT that complicated. And ‘then’? Don’t get me started on that one! There are TWO words, people, TWO! ‘Than’, and ‘then’. Two different words, each with its own, different meaning. Every time I see ‘then’ being used when ‘than’ was meant, I am just plain embarrassed for the writer. Just because we don’t manage to differentiate well between a short ‘a’ and a short ‘e’ in our speech on this continent doesn’t mean the spelling doesn’t convey different meanings. Yeesh…

Okay. So I have my stripe of linguist purist. But to me, language is for communicating meaning. If a change of vocabulary or usage enhances communication, it’s an enrichment; if a change hinders or diminishes communication, it’s an impoverishment. Simple, really, though there is room for lots of fun discussion. My sweetie and I had a lively half-hour chat on the validity of the current use of ‘focus’ as a synonym for ‘concentrate’, me in favour, he in opposition. (Yes, we do have these kinds of conversations: aren’t you jealous?)

I further believe – this also emerged in my conversation with Stephen this morning – that correct language is often dependent on context. U R OK 2 wrt lik ths if you are texting (now there’s a word that would make Bob’s skin crawl) a friend, but you’re not going to use that in a research paper.

Bob’s approach to language change is even simpler, however: Change is Bad. Linguistic innovation is always inferior to what preceded it.

Easy, huh??

So, when he emailed to tell me he had an article from a British newspaper to show me when we meet again on Tuesday, I knew I had to go in there armed to defend myself. Off I go a-googling this morning, starting with a site which Kat enjoys. From there I follow link after link, googling this and that, until I learn a few things.

I learn that Bob is a prescriptivist, while I am a descriptivist*. Cool, huh? Who knew? (For all my English degree, I have not a single linguistics course under my belt.) (*If you follow that link, you’ll have to scroll down to the section entitled “What is the difference between ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’?” It’s pretty funny.)

And finally, I stumbled across the book I’m (finally) going to mention!

The Fight for English: how language pundits ate, shot, and left, by David Crystal. Crystal, a “world authority on language” (another thing I learned only this morning!), has attended to the trend to “linguistic fundamentalism” with concern. This book is an exploration of the trend, for he believes it should be understood in order to be resisted, and in order that things of value within it be gleaned and used.

I’m on chapter five, so far, and loving it. It’s not as funny as Truss, but it’s a delight to read – clear, logical, instructive. Starting with Aelfric the Grammarian (c. 995), he follows the development of the language and the language squabbling, the jockeying for position and authority down through the centuries. Caxton has a lot to answer for in his jump-start of the Language Wars, poor fellow: all he was trying to do was use this great new invention, the printing press!

I’m not half-through yet, but I have all day Sunday. I am particularly looking forward to the chapters entitled “Change”, “Incorrectness”, “Context”, and “Future”.

I am so going to kick Bob’s ass on Tuesday.


January 20, 2007 - Posted by | books, memes and quizzes


  1. Okay, I went to that link, and I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m okay with texting talk – although I usually spell out words. U for you doesn’t cut it for me. )Nor does cutting out all vowels because heaven forbid you must press a button twice for ‘e’ or ‘u’ and *gasp* three times for ‘i’ and ‘o’). I was looking back at old blog entries today and caught myself on affect/effect and the to/too problem. Which annoys me. My language pet peeve? your for you’re and there/their for they’re. Now that I’m done with the rant…

    We’ve all been bad at SaBloBoMo, maybe January is a hard month to accomplish the task?

    Comment by Angela | January 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. I loved the Eat/Shoots book, and can’t wait to read this one. I’m a believer that language has to change to stay useful. It’s always changed (see Shakespeare and Chaucer), and that’s one of the reasons that English serves as a global business language. That being said, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write in “texting” spelling except while actually texting, but I’m an old grouch in my thirties.

    Comment by Lady M | January 20, 2007 | Reply

  3. I use predictive text so it’s easier for me just to type in words properly. But I admit to laziness on IM. 🙂 You’ll have to let me know how you go with the rest of the book, and whether or not it’s worth buying (or just borrowing from the library).

    Comment by Kat | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  4. The worst concession to the changing language I’ve come across was in a writing textbook that claimed that “flaunt” and “flout” were now considered interchangeable. The madness. These are not different spellings of the same word – they’re not even related meanings. They are two completely different words that happen to sound a bit alike.

    It is amusing, though, to say, “If you’ve got it, flout it!”

    Comment by bubandpie | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  5. I love Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but I hadn’t heard of David Crystal before. Maybe I’ll have to check it out one of these days.

    I’m not sure where I fall on the prescription/description divide, but I guess I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I’m not totally against innovation, but I’m also not into the texting shorthand either. I vote for preserving at least SOME elegance in the language!

    Comment by Jamie | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  6. I use the children’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves with my class–they love it! My linguistic pet peeve her in SoCal is the many, many people who form their plurals with apostrophes. Hate that.

    I’m going to have to take a look at this book. Thanks!

    Comment by McSwain | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  7. Angela – I thought when I signed up that a book a day was a pretty tall order – but I also thought I’d do better than I have! It’s okay. I’ve done my best. 🙂

    I don’t use text shorthand, as it happens. I think it looks stupid, and I find the reading of it cumbersome. However, I don’t thereby think that text language should be eradicated – in its proper context. If you have an entire keyboard and all your fingers at your disposal, it’s just adolescent. (Which, again, is fine if you are one! All about context.)

    LadyM – at least you’re not a woman in your thirties pretending to be 15… (This from an old grouch in her forties. Heh.) English has always changed. You’re absolutely right, and the thing I’m seeing over and over in this book is that at almost every change (at least from the 1300’s on), some people enjoyed it, while others have harrumphed and groused about how the language was being destroyed. Seven hundred years later, it’s going strong, so who was right, I wonder?

    Kat – Predictive text disorients me, so I just type it all in. All of it, each and every word. But just because I feel that way doesn’t mean everyone has to! I’m also aware that I don’t text a whole lot; perhaps if I did it more, I might succumb.

    As for IM? I don’t use short forms. I type fairly quickly, you see: the microsecond hesitation I make to force myself to type ‘U’ instead of ‘you’ (i.e. spell it wrong) nullifes any gains I’d make by eliminating two keystrokes. (Plus, I just feel stupid doing it, as stupid as I’d feel wearing my 13-year-old’s clothes and trying to dance her way to her music. Um, no.)

    I find shortforms awful stuff to read. Takes much too much mental effort. In a three-sentence text message, I can deal with it. In a twenty-minute IM chat? Oh, please don’t do that to me!! The short forms are a dialect of people a decade or two younger than me. It’s not that I couldn’t learn it, but there’s no good reason for me to do so.

    When I IM, however, I don’t go back and correct typos, because speed is important in this venue. Once again, we’re back to context. Shortforms are appropriate to text messaging, if that’s your choice; they’re perhaps appropriate to IM, though I’d debate it; they’re inappropriate to more formal communications.

    Bubandpie – given how few people probably know what ‘flout’ means, I’m not surprised they get muddled. I’d bet the people who do that honestly don’t know there are two different, similar-sounding words!

    Jamie – as I said to a couple of people above, I don’t use texting shorthand when I’m texting, and I think its appropriate application is limited. However, I would argue that it does have a specific arena of appropriate use. Not that I’ll ever use it, because I (just me, personally) don’t like it. But unlike my friend, I don’t believe that *no one* should be able to do/use things just because *I* don’t like it.

    The thing is, almost every innovation that’s ever come along has been accused of taking away the language’s power and elegance. Jonathan Swift, apparently, frothed at the mouth at the liberties poets took when they shortened past tense verbs like ‘disturb’d’ and ‘oblig’d’, whereas now we see that as… poetic elegance!

    McSwain – You have to wonder how people could miss such a simple lesson, learned in, oh grade three?

    I find myself in the position of being annoyed by stuff like this even as I say “but the language will change; it always has!” For me, the merit of the change, as I outlined in my post, is determined by whether or not it improves the language’s ability to convey meaning. Standardized spelling and punctuation goes a long way to creating clear communication – but I’d need to decide if those misused apostrophes are truly muddying communication, or just annoying me?? If it’s the latter, I suppose to maintain the integrity of my position on this, I’d have to accept them. Not that I plan to…

    I love books that make you think!

    Comment by MaryP | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hi, I’ve been reading your site for a while and i wanted to add my two cents. My field is historical linguistics and comparative grammar (phd candidate). One of the most interesting things about the prescriptivist phenomenom is that with many ancient languages,such as latin, we learned most of our information about how people spoke from rants by grammarians and orators about how they shouldn’t speak. In undergrad, prescriptivist was an insult used in heated debate between linguistics students to suggest one was “unenlightened”. We were trained from our first class to get rid of any prescriptivist assumptions as soon as possible so that we could be unbiased observers and it became a word that evoked strong emotion. The process of one word assimilating into another is a common one not just in the english language but in many languages which is how we get things like irregular verbs. I also find it frustrating when people confuse words, but usually some other word rises to the occasion to represent the concept that was lost.That was an interesting post, I hope the book continues to be interesting.I hope I wasn’t a boor.

    Comment by meep | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  9. Can I just tell you how much I LOVE that this post is all about intelligent, descriptive, fabulous language and then ends with “I am so going to kick Bob’s ass on Tuesday”! Yup, all about context. I love it.
    Haven’t checked out the links yet, but I plan to. 🙂

    Comment by kelli in the mirror | January 21, 2007 | Reply

  10. P-man is a lunatic for anywayzzzzz. And, I think I should recommend to you the Know-it all book for a future read.

    Comment by mo-wo | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  11. Mary, I think shortforms in text messaging also emerged partly as a cost saving. At least here in Australia, each SMS sent is billed, so the more you can cram into one message, the cheaper it will be – particulary important to teens using mobile phones at their parents’ largesse (usually pre-paid). Then, of course, it just became common shorthand.

    With IM, I agree with you. I always err on the side of formal forms. My typing only degenerates if I’m chatting to friends, or if the other person prefers to IM in a less formal register. Then I feel slightly prudish. Usually the capitalisation goes first. But I promise, no apostrophes are lost in the process (unless you count “ur” for you’re, but I’d argue that you can read it as “you are”).

    My main gripe with pedantic prescriptivism (if that’s not a tautology) is that people often try to enforce “rules” without understanding how they’re properly applied. So we end up with pseudo-grammarians who are responsible for generations of people that then hypercorrect…which leads to constructs that are just as erroneous. The I/me hypercorrection is a good example. I’ll admit I can’t always tell which one is appropriate, but I do know cases when they’re wrong and I see erroneous use all the time, even in newspapers.

    That said, I have pet peeves when it comes to language change, even though I know I’m being unreasonable. For example, “impact” as a verb to mean “have an impact on”, even though tells me that “contact” went through a similar evolution. Every time I hear someone say “impact” in a business meeting, I think of impacted teeth and dentists. *lol*

    Comment by Kat | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  12. BUBANDPIE: I just reread your comment and realized that it referred to a reference book! THAT puts a whole different spin on it.

    8-Meep: You know, a while back I posted a question I had about mitochondrial DNA, as a result of a book I’d read – and a graduate student in genetics popped by to help me out! Now I write about linguistics, and don’t I get a PhD student in historical linguistics and comparative grammar? I love the internet!

    Thank you for adding your two cents. No boorishness at all.

    “[U]sually some other word rises to the occasion to represent the concept that was lost.” Well, that’s reassuring, because of course that’s the concern when a word is assimilated – the language is that much less expressive than it used to be.

    I can see why a prof would have to discourage prescriptivist tendencies in undergrad students: you need to be open to information, not rejecting half of it based on your assumptions, preconceptions, and preferences. Some must come to the position later, I imagine, through considered study, or there’d be no prescriptivists writing learned texts. Which there are, I gather!

    My friend’s ‘prescriptivism’ isn’t based on any considered theoretical framework. It’s merely a knee-jerk emotional reaction to change, and a preference to seeing himself as a man of culture and intelligence, the change-makers ignorant fools. (Yes, I do like him, really! Perhaps not this aspect so much…)

    People have always done that, though, haven’t they? Have an emotional reaction, swathed it in strips of rationalizatons and justifications, and call it reason.

    Thanks for dropping in!

    9 – Kelli: I rather liked that line, too. I love this subject. Words interest me. I’m getting way further into it than I suspect Bob ever has, just because I like it. Still, this discussion with Bob is going to be fun! So kick his ass, yeah!

    10 – Mo-wo: So how far is the P-man? J-K? S-Sn? Or did he stop at his namesake, P?

    And who are you suggesting is the Know-It-All? Me, or Bob?

    11 – Kat: Depends on your plan. Some have a set fee per message; my eldest gets a thousand free per month. (A THOUSAND!)

    I think what we’re seeing here is a generational change. If you’re IM chatting with a friend who’s using it, you feel prudish not to do so as well. If I’m chatting with a friend who does it (I have only one who does), I feel she’s being childish. I’ve never objected, because she’s my friend and it’s not a big deal; but to do it myself? I’d feel like I was pretending to be something I’m not. Like the balding, paunchy middle-aged man who dresses like his kids so as to hit on twenty-somethings. Silly.

    My friend and I are in our mid-forties; you’re barely into your thirties. Lot of changes have happened in that short time.

    I think, if we care about the language, we’ll have our pet peeves. The key point is not to insist that our peeves be pandered to. (Well, except by our children. Perk of being a parent. Ha!) The language will change as it changes; all the frothing in the world will serve only to raise your blood pressure…

    Comment by MaryP | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  13. I love knowing I’m not the only language freak around.

    Comment by kittenpie | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  14. Actually, I was thinking of IM with my boss! *lol* I think it’s partly generational but also depends on the other person’s love of writing. For example, I have a colleague who’s younger than me but more of an English purist. So our chats are usually very well punctuated! My boss, on the other hand, uses “u” in e-mails to clients. Makes me cringe, but they seem to understand him. He does let me copedit our final reports, though.

    Good luck with the ass-kicking! *g*

    Comment by Kat | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  15. What an interesting post. I must admit that as a linguistics major who works with language daily, this debate is old news (though a bit of reading will quickly show you that linguists have very little patience for prescritivists). A blog you might enjoy is the Language Log.

    Comment by parodie | January 22, 2007 | Reply

  16. 13-Kittenpie: Judging by the comments here, not by a long chalk! I have always found language fascinating, ever since I was a kid and would flip through the dictionary looking for new words.

    14-Kat: As I said, I have one friend who does it – but I do think it’s much rarer for folks in my decade than in yours. I don’t imagine you’re the only one who cringes at the ‘u’s’. And thanks for the good wishes for Tuesday (tonight)! I think it will be a lively discussion.

    15-Parodie: Yes, all this was news to me, but not for anyone who’s made a study of the subject. I showed the book to a friend who’s an editor; she recognized Crystal’s name immediately, and went into some detail as to his authority and expertise. Language Log was one of the link I provided in the post, in fact – the starting point for my reading, the one that Kat enjoys. So you’re quite right! I might enjoy it – I do!

    Comment by MaryP | January 23, 2007 | Reply

  17. How ironic that I spelled “copyedit” wrong. *lol*

    Mary, have you read Pinker’s The Language Instinct? It talks a lot about children’s acquision of language, which you might find particularly interesting. (He has broader theories, too, which you may or may not agree with.)

    Comment by Kat | January 23, 2007 | Reply

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