grammaticality: not your every day definition

There are a lot of weblogs out there that are focused entirely on helping people keep … weblogs. How to maintain a blog, how to write an article, how to promote what you’re doing so you get more visitors. I don’t often take the time to keep up with this particular kind of blog, but then somebody sent me a link to a post.  The evocative title: Are bloggers and blogs ruining the English language?

What irritates me about this kind of discussion is the failure to distinguish between (a) written and spoken language;  (b) grammar and punctuation; and (c) form and function.

A.  The tyranny of the written word is such that we give it authority over the spoken language. Which is, if you think about it, not very logical. We write things that tax our ability to remember, or to project our thoughts through time and space. We speak everything else. But (I hear you ask) aren’t they the same thing, just as water is water whether it  flows, or freezes so that we can walk on it? Isn’t it just a matter of presentation? Can’t speech and  writing be treated as different manifestations of the same mental phenomenon? Wouldn’t spoken language be more efficient if we treated it like written language?

We might think of the difference between spoken and written language as the difference between walking and machines built for the purpose of transporting human beings. Unless a child suffers a terrible turn of fate, she will learn to walk without focused instruction. People move themselves over space to pursue food and shelter, to associate with each other, to explore their world. Over time, the human race developed a series of technologies to improve the ability to move themselves: they tamed horses, camels, oxen; they built carts, carriages, boats, trains, bicycles, cars,  airplanes.  All of these things are faster than walking, and, if speed is the primary criterion by which we judge efficiency of movement, they are superior to the skill all humans have in common. But it would not occur to us to set up standards for walking on the basis of the speed of any of these vehicles: it is a physical impossibility to walk 60 miles an hour.

So it’s a good idea to distinguish between the two when you’re talking about the fate of language in general. And of course, the internet is adding more complexity to this issue. The way people write email or weblog entries has features of both spoken and written language, something linguists have been following with great interest.

B. When you are talking to somebody you use more than your words to communicate. Tone of voice, facial expression, body stance, hand gestures, all of that contributes to the communication. When you are writing you use punctuation instead. You may also change your handwriting, or add drawings, or otherwise use symbols (that word again) to get the complexity of your message across.

Grammar is not punctuation. Grammar has to do with the way words are strung together to make a sentence. I think everybody would agree that 

presentation matter just of is

is not a well formed sentence in English. It’s grammatically flawed.

Its a matter of presentation.

Has got a punctuation error in it, but it’s perfectly grammatical in that it’s something that you’re likely to hear in spoken English. The meaning is clear. Punctuation is a matter of fashion. Just look back over time, and watch how the behavior of commas and semicolons and quotation marks changes. They dance around on the page. So is this really something to get upset over?

C. Beautifully written language can be empty of any meaningful content, just as an essay full of spelling errors and misspellings might be the most insightful, most elegant argument. If you chose not to read something because it insults your understanding of how punctuation is supposed to work, that is of course your choice. But you could well be missing something wonderful.

I will stop there. Consider this my semi-annual rant on the subject. I’m sure it will come up again, and I will do my best to resist until… I can’t resist any more.

4 Replies to “grammaticality: not your every day definition”

  1. Feel free to rant anytime. Your insights touched me deeply reminding me of the false supremacy of the written word.

    Although literacy is close to my heart I feel strongly that we rely too stongly on the written.

    The person who can read and write can use fewer words and still express their thoughts.

    Happy Family Literacy Day, Jocelyn

  2. Spoken language and symbolism… I perfectly well accept someone saying (well, sort of) “Let’s you and I go to the store.”

    However, I cringe when I read that when it’s written. At the same time, to me it’s a symbol of how educated that person is. At the same time I draw the line, written or spoken, at “I’ve become orientated.” Yet another symbol. In either case I do try to limit my 5 syllable words in the conversation. Unless the person is trying to impress me with his knowledge. Then me takes no prisoners.

  3. I sometimes use big words, like “mitigate” in discussion at work. Somehow, it’s acceptable. Given I only gained the sense of “mitigate” a few years ago, it’s pretty gutsy of me to use it at all. However. I think a lot of our language use is completely habitual. That is, use it frequently and you will use it often. Argh. All this to say, I was in a meeting at a community group the other day, and “mitigate” naturally fell from my mouth. Someone commented on it, and I’d say it was odd even for me. I think I was just tired and not completely homed in on where I was. It wasn’t my intention to offend the group with a big word. Maybe improper use of grammar, punctuation – of language – maybe all this can be chalked up to inattention, the lack of common courtesy in society today? Although as you point out, Rosina, the rules of some of these things change back and forth with the times anyway.

  4. Actually, I thought it was sort of funny that a site named “Performancing” should post such an article, and also that said article had an extra word in the fourth sentence. There were similar errors all through it — the kinds of things that cause a mental double-take until you can redirect your attention. To me, muddying up meanings in that way is the real problem of “grammar and punctuation” errors.

    It’s like reading (proofing) a scholarly article that uses six words to say what could be said in three.

    Authors who stack sentences like that hurt my head and cause the red pen to fly.

    Interestingly, thanks to the Smart Bitches, I’ve found a new blog to read, geek2geek, and the author, Schwern, is posting a series in a similar vein: “We Don’t Write, We Speak with Our Fingers.”

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