and discussions in the news, such as this BBC article about text-speak.
Perhaps the title of this blog post ought to be Why do we Find Discussing Language so Fascinating?, because it’s clear that we will never bore of discussing language issues.
At the moment, my bedside reading is a linguistics textbook by David Crystal, which is taking me back to my roots and reminding me why I love language and everything to do with it. (I feel a strong urge to temper this with the revelation that I don’t normally read textbooks in bed, not since my student days, anyway. I much prefer to induce sweet dreams by reading fiction about solving a grisly murder, instead.)
Whether humans or animals it’s to our advantage that we can communicate, and as humans we’re unique in being able to do that via language. Since communication is fundamental to language, as long as we get our message across, why does it matter how we do it and whether the grammar is correct?
Each language has its own rules that enable us to communicate – we agree on these rules therefore we understand each other*. If those rules are broken extensively then we might be unable to understand the message a person is trying to communicate. There are many prescriptivists who take this to the extreme and delight in admonishing other people’s “errors”, or cringe in dismay at things such as grocers’ apostrophes. In many ways, and especially in my guise as editor, I am one of these people (and yes I thought long and hard about where to put that apostrophe in grocers’).
Critical attitudes to language are all around us, but, as the quote (above) from Steven Pinker demonstrates, they are often nothing but unjustified value judgements. At my core is a descriptivist trying to get out. What does it matter how we say or write something if it can be understood? When talking about language, we need to differentiate between the contexts in which language occurs. Formal, written language such as a newspaper article is very different to written text speak, for example. If I type a tweet or text message I’ll use every abbreviation I know to make it as short as possible, but not at the expense of comprehension, I hope. However, if writing a newspaper article, or even a more informal blog post, I’d have to be strong-armed into typing ur for “your”.
I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t understand the message of the character in green in the cartoon above. So what does it matter that grammatical and spelling errors are used? If I try really hard, the editor in me can read it without dying inside too much, but it’s the final use of pacific (for “specific”) that is the sucker punch. As much as I understand the sentence, I can’t get past the error so it distracts from the message. And in writing, if we don’t adhere to the same system, the deviations will become so extreme that we no longer understand one another.
Let’s not forget though, that an inherent property of language is that it constantly evolves. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking and writing like Chaucer in the UK. We can’t stop this evolution but we can try to keep it on track by using the right grammar and spelling to suit the context. As an editor, I don’t know everything about the grammar of English. But my mantra is “if in doubt, always look it up”. Being a good copy editor is about knowing when to question something, not knowing everything.