John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

English, the slut language

Yesterday’s post on plurals and possessives stirred up some comments worth addressing.

This one, from The Ridger:

You know you can't tell them apart when you say them. Dogs, dog's, dogs'

Is it any wonder people make spelling errors? Lighten up on them. 



And please don't attack me; I did say they were errors. I just don't think they're harbingers of doom. Show a person who confuses "it is" with "its" (not "it's", "it is") and I will concede that he "doesn't know the difference" as opposed to "can't spell well".


And these two, from mike:

I would argue (and have) that it's a melancholy state of orthographical protocol that seems to require repeated tutorials to master these rules. The fact is, the system we have for when and when not to use the apostrophe is ridiculously complicated, and gets in the way every single day of what the ultimate purpose of writing is: to get information down on paper, real or virtual. If it seems that a majority (let's assume) of people who write English cannot seem to master these rules, where's the problem, with the people or with the rules? In my business (computers), if people can't seem to figure out how to use a program, you blame poor program design, not ill-educated users.


FWIW, apostrophes have been used "incorrectly" throughout the history of English to mark plurals. Dryden did it consistently, for example.* (Have a look at handwritten manuscripts from days of yore. You might be surprised at what you find for spelling and punctation.) 

As I say, it's just too confusing. More and earlier education is _not the answer_. A more logical system is the real answer. Writing ordinary English should not require a decade of study.

The root of the matter is that writing is not natural. Speech is. A child who is not impaired or kept in isolation will learn language ⎯ vocabulary and grammar both ⎯ in just a few years because the capacity for that feat is evolutionarily hard-wired into the species.

But writing has been among us for a comparatively short time, and it must be learned laboriously through schooling.

That is why, as The Ridger points out, that we generally know exactly what a speaker means, because we mastered spoken English in infancy and early childhood. But our grasp of written English, even after much schooling, is tenuous.

Add to that the kind of language that English is. For all its richness and flexibility, and its grand literature, it is just a slut, picking up vocabulary and grammar promiscuously from other languages. It started out as Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, and then slept with Norman French and Latin.

This is part of the reason that English orthography is a nightmare, some of it from Anglo-Saxon patterns and some of it from the classical languages that English shamelessly plundered. Standardization of spelling dates pretty much from the nineteenth century, so we haven’t even been at that for very long.

The hope for “a more logical system,” is, I fear, a chimera. Noah Webster wanted to reform the spelling of American English, and he had a limited degree of success (color and honor instead of colour and honour, for example. Big whoop). George Bernard Shaw campaigned tirelessly for a simplified spelling. He failed. And even the formidable Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick of the Chicago Tribune must see with chagrin from his celestial tower that the World’s Greatest Newspaper has long since abandoned his pet spellings.

No, English is, as she always has been, a wayward wanton, and we have to accept her as we find her, not as we would wish her to be.

Maddening and irregular as they are, the conventions of spelling, the conventions of punctuation, and the inconsistencies of plurals and possessives remain there to be learned by anyone who has any pretension to mastering the craft of writing.



*Be careful, mike. You will probably want to use Dryden as a bad example for his insistence that English sentences should not end with prepositions. In any event, persons writing before the publication of reliable English dictionaries or standardized orthography are not the best examples to cite in this connection.

17 comments:

  1. There is a wonderful quote by a James Nicoll, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

    I know ESL teachers who give their students a slightly cleaned up version of that quote. They say that it helps the students realize that it's not them, it's the language.

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  2. I'd like to highlight this -so important to me- sentence from John's post:

    "But writing (...) must be learned laboriously through schooling."

    Yes, indeed... LABORIOUSLY.

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  3. I do not understand the deep resentment and resistance to "rules" as if they are created will-nilly to cause aggravation for students. To me, rules are guidelines to assist in communication, to clarify the intended message. Mastering spoken English, as cited above, is not a given in my area area of the country. Certain common dialects are practically incomprehensible to the uninitiated and putting the words on paper does nothing to clarify the communication.

    Guidelines do help. The dog's coat and the dogs' coat have two entirely different meanings. The first dog has a coat of his own. In the second example, two or more dogs share the same coat -- whether high fashion or utilitarian is not addressed. To ask me, the reader, to readily understand which you mean is beyond my ability.

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  4. I didn't learn to write by memorizing all English structures and their irregularities (of which there are legion). I learned to write by reading thousands of pages of correctly-written English. The language is indeed messy and amorphous, but I don't believe it's too much to expect that an adult with a GED have a firm grasp on contractions and possessives, even after incidental contact with a high-school textbook.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is.

    NOTE: The author acknowledges the risk of grammar errors and run-on sentences in the preceding post.

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  5. "Mike" was not born knowing about computers--he most likely had to study "laboriously"! I write about computer software, and I have to say writing is much less complicated.

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  6. One of the most depressing moments in my newspaper copy-editing career came when I was performing a last-minute proof on the A1 negative and I noticed the front-page banner ad had the word "it's" when it should have been "its."

    When I brought it up to the production manager, he snorted and said he already knew. He had spotted the error when the advertiser sent in the ad copy and phoned them to explain, saying he would remove the apostrophe.

    "No, please don't," the advertiser said. "It might be wrong, but lots of people get confused and I think it's actually easier to understand this way."

    *Facepalm*

    We sent the neg for plating and went for a long smoke break.

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  7. Of course people who want to write should try to learn the (maddening) conventions of spelling and punctuation. But The Ridger puts her finger on a practice that drives me crazy: Calling such errors "misunderstandings" and "confusions" when they are no such thing. "He's faster then I am" is not a sign that someone can't tell "then" and "than" apart; it's a simple misspelling (and one that was once correct).

    By ignoring this distinction, peevologists can vastly inflate their doomy catalogs of evidence of the language's decline; eliminate the misspellings, and they have much less to moan about.

    Yes, spelling is important. But it's JUST SPELLING.

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  8. In those thousands of pages of "correctly-written English," we could probably find more than a few broken rules. I don't discount the value of reading a lot to become a better writer. But I think it would be very hard to find a piece of writing that is technically perfect and an entertaining read at the same time.

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  9. Patricia the TerseJanuary 28, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    Yes, grammar is important but it's just grammar. Yes, clarity is important but it's just clarity.Yes, checking the facts is important but it's just checking the fact. Yes, context is important but it's just context. It occurs to me that much of the bleating and whinging is from people who are either ignorant or lazy - or possibly an unenviable combination of both. We learn by doing, as St Ignatius was fond of observing (although he observed in Latin)and it helps if we learn the rules along the way. Grammatical anarchy just makes written language more incomprehensible and we have plenty of that.

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  10. Exactly, Jan. It's spelling. It's not grammar (usually) and it's not syntax. If you wouldn't notice it in speech, it's JUST SPELLING.

    Yes, spelling things properly is a Good Thing. But being a bad speller is hardly a capital crime.

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  11. Thank you for making the point about English being a gathering of various language traditions. I knew that, but seeing it in print made it more significant. As one who is not a formally-trained or employed linguist, it matters. (I just employ language in my profession as a writer.) I think it's possible that people like me pay more attention to issues like spelling and grammar than others for whom language is just a casual relationship. Maybe that's why I have clung to rules (even when...as I discovered this week...the rule doesn't exist!) It rattles me when I see what I believe to be a spelling or usage error in a professionally-prepared piece by someone who I believe to be an expert.

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  12. The writing and editing I read in print and hear in broadcasts — I suppose I could say — keeps me gainfully employed as a copy editor. To borrow a word from one of the other comments: It is "laborious" at times. ... but payday is tomorrow!

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  13. Of course, grammar rules are not forever fixed. And where bold actions of solitary crusaders fail, the steady wearing down by the unwashed masses often succeed.

    I would expect that the apostrophe eventually disappears in this usage. As more people - non-native speakers especially - write English, the confusion is only increasing. Lately I've seen an increase of texts simply omitting it: "the birds" would be either the possessive "thats the birds perch" or the plural "those birds sure make a lot of noise". The surrounding context makes it perfectly unambiguous, and it doesn't look half as wrong as some of the more egregious misuses of the apostrophe.

    Is it correct? No. Does it horrify people who cares about this sort of thing? Probably. Does it look OK to the vast majority of English users around the world? Sure does. Is it an acceptable cop-out if you aren't sure about the rules, your concern is about producing some legible text to a deadline, and stopping for a grammar lesson is the last thing on your mind? Yep.

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  14. In seventh grade, my English teacher made us copy the entire dictionary entry for every spelling word every week. That included the derivation of the word.

    I am always surprised when I find people who have apparently always skipped right over the derivations and have no idea a particular word has evolved over time (nor any idea the history of the word might hold clues to its spelling or meaning).

    Those assignments were probably good handwriting practice, too, although I was convinced they were a waste of time.

    Barbara Phillips Long

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  15. I am amused. This is my first reading of the blog of a copy editor (the enemy!) and here is a good one: "persons writing before he publication of reliable English dictionaries."

    Surely not he?

    -James J

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  16. James J, If you had troubled to read the standing matter at the top of the page, you would have been no less amused but less surprised.

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  17. John, I only today discovered your blog and am already hooked. But I have a question regarding this phrase:

    ***************

    That is why, as The Ridger points out, that we generally know exactly what a speaker means, because we mastered spoken English in infancy and early childhood.

    ***************

    Is it correct to say, "why... that"? I would have left "that" out. Has it to do with a restrictive clause? (I am fuzzy about those.)

    Thanks.

    Ramona McDaris

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