The first rule of proper English? There is no proper English

Wednesday, 25 March, 2015

I am, sometimes, and who knows why, asked to offer my advice (I almost said advise), as to what constitutes correct, or proper, English, in certain circumstances. Not an easy question really to answer, given 1200 million people, all across the globe, speak the language.

The user base is simply too diverse, too spread out, too alive and in the moment, to make the imposing of lasting rules possible. Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t learn the rules, or conventions first, before you go – as it were – breaking them.

The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

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Graffiti, with punctuation and grammar, only in Quito, Ecuador

Friday, 13 March, 2015

Just as one Wikipedia member is intent on ridding the online encyclopaedia of the grammatically incorrect phrase “comprised of” from articles, counterparts of a sort are on a mission to tidy up errors made by graffiti artists and others, in the Ecuadorian city of Quito:

In the dead of night, two men steal through the streets of Quito armed with spray cans and a zeal for reform. They are not political activists or revolutionaries: they are radical grammar pedants on a mission to correctly punctuate Ecuador’s graffiti. Adding accents, inserting commas and placing question marks at the beginning and end of interrogative sentences scrawled on the city’s walls, the vigilante editors have intervened repeatedly over the past three months to expose the orthographic shortcomings of would-be poets, forlorn lovers and anti-government campaigners.

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You are the language you speak, and therefore you are

Friday, 2 March, 2012

You stand to be healthier and wealthier if you speak a language that doesn’t discern the future from the present… as in “I am shopping” compared to “I will go shopping”.

Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self.

Perhaps speakers of such languages need to phrase themselves a little more positively… “I am rich”, instead of “one day I will be rich”, and so on.

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Literature sounds better with your passing notes

Tuesday, 14 February, 2012

Years ago when I was learning to play the guitar a tutor told me a note played out of scale, in other words, erroneously, was called a “passing note”. It was another way of saying minor mistakes don’t matter, especially as very few people are likely to notice the presence of a single errant note among hundreds of others.

I don’t know why I remembered about passing notes, or even that I once played guitar (a Nirvana-ised/grunge cover of the Beatles And I Love Her of mine was a career highlight… but this was the 90s), while reading through a list of common grammar mistakes, but it could be some of these syntax errors resemble passing notes.

Such an assertion will doubtless bewilder linguistics virtuosos, in much the same way, I imagine, that grunge covers of iconic 60s acts stood to unhinge guitar tutors, but the apparent misuse of words such as “nor”, “moot”, or even “impactful”, could, arguably, be attributed to changes in the use of language over time.

Even if such a time period is no more than five minutes. Even if “impactful” is the bastard twin of “irregardless”. Even if “who” should substitute “whom” without hesitation, as it is so deprecated people will think you’re writing from the seventeenth century if you use it. Let’s call them literature’s passing notes. This website is laced with them.

Yes, that’s right, that coming from a former homecoming high school first-quartile English student, if you could ever believe that, irregardless of whether those grades were largely due to the fiction (that sometimes posed as non-fiction, but that’s another story) I used to write.

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Has the death of the English language been a tad exaggerated?

Wednesday, 29 September, 2010

Just because someone brews a single bad coffee doesn’t mean the art of fine coffee making has gone belly up… meanwhile those writing to newspaper editors should perhaps run their letters through a spell checker lest the English language again be declared no longer wif us.

The end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the “youngest” daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their “younger” daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the “Obama’s.” This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame.

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Sincerely dear madam unrules are infinitive of a living language

Wednesday, 8 September, 2010

Five writing unrules from The School of Life… I sense some dated writing conventions are under going a revision of sorts thanks in part to email, and even sci-fi TV series “Star Trek”

Split infinitives. They can be clunky but they’re not grammatically incorrect.

The age of electronic communication (I was about to open this sentence with the word “and” by the way) has also rendered previously widespread openings and sign-off formats, used in the few letters that are still written, close to obsolete:

Don’t sign off letters with ‘Yours Sincerely’ if you know the person you’re writing to or ‘Yours Faithfully’ if you don’t. ‘Yours Sincerely?’ It’s 2010. You don’t need to use stuffy formality like this anymore (or start letters with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sir / Madam’ for that matter).

I’ll conclude by somewhat contradicting myself, and saying you still have to learn the rules first before you can start breaking them.

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The he said she said argument over gender neutral pronouns

Wednesday, 1 September, 2010

What to do about the lack of gender neutral pronouns in the English language? Invent a couple?

The traditional gender agreement rule states that pronouns must agree with the nouns they stand for both in gender and in number. A corollary requires the masculine pronoun when referring to groups comprised of men and women. But critics argue that such generic masculines – for example, “Everyone loves his mother” – actually violate the gender agreement part of the pronoun agreement rule. And they warn that the common practice of using they to avoid generic he violates number agreement: in “Everyone loves their mother,” everyone is singular and their is plural. Only a new pronoun, something like ip, coined in 1884, can save us from the error of the generic masculine or the even worse error of singular “they.”

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The not so quiet evolution of reading

Friday, 26 June, 2009

Reading hasn’t always been the silent, solitary, activity that many of us are probably used to.

The development of the way people have read mirrors the pattern of a child’s learning. In the ancient world, they read out loud and in company. In the Middle Ages, monks in their scriptoria would murmur quietly to themselves as they scanned their sacred texts. Then, in the Renaissance, people began to read silently in their heads, a development greatly aided by the development of punctuation.

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2009: the international year of writing with lowercase text

Friday, 15 May, 2009

jared tame puts the case for the sole use of lowercase:

i propose that 2009 be the year where capitalization is removed from most forms of writing (commenting, e-mails, even essays). as with my last blog, i shall some day elaborate. but for now, keeping it simple and getting straight to the point. bump this up if you think capitalization is stupid.

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Cool is a democracy we all have a vote in

Monday, 11 May, 2009

Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Origins of the Specious, says we all have a say when it comes to influencing the evolution of language.

People often ask me who decides what’s right. The answer is we all do. Everybody has a vote. The ‘rules’ are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide that ‘cool’ can mean ‘hot,’ change happens.

While we all have a “vote” it goes without saying some of us have more influence than others.

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