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Differences of Opinion

October 4, 2012

(Disclaimer: I feel like this post might be somewhat inflammatory. I don’t want to make anyone angry. So, if you are the type of person who cannot abide linguistic mistakes like misplaced apostrophes or poor phrasing, please read no further. You should maybe go here instead. If you do read this and you disagree, please let me know. My main goal is communication… Perhaps I am making something of nothing.)

It were not best that we should all think alike;

it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.

–Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

I find people that make an issue of the “rules of language” quite tiresome. They are usually the kind of people that like to make a show of their education but they aren’t bold enough to wear a t-shirt with a picture of their English degree on it. They lay in wait. Their eyes greedily read every throwaway sentence; their ears devour every off-the-cuff remark: they are hunting for mistakes.
“I could care less,” you tell them.
“I think you mean to say that you couldn’t care less. When you say you could care less that means you have some level of caring.”
“It’s interesting that you understood what I meant to say,” you think of saying much later, “but you still insisted on pointing out the absence of two letters and an apostrophe in a whole sentence.”
Instead, what you actually say is, “Oh yeah. Your right.”
They smile smugly and you worry about using a dangling preposition or splitting your infinitives. The verbal predators are on the hunt.
“Ten items or fewer not ten items or less,” they chant.
“Texting is ruining the English language,” they moan.
“Will no one think of the children?”
“How are you doing?” you ask.
“I’m well,” they reply properly.
It sounds strange when it hits your eardrum, a strangely formal reply to a casual question.
“How are you doing?” you are asked.
“I’m good.”
“That is morally subjective,” replies the pedant. “You may make the attempt to be good rather than evil, but to make such claims about ones morality is both arrogant and stupid. Furthermore, it does not answer my question. I will say it again: How are you doing today?”
“I’m annoyed,” you would like to say. Instead you reply with, “I’m fine.”
Your self-appointed instructor winces but lets it pass.
The arguments are endless and circular and unwinnable. Language is constantly evolving. Language changes constantly. Even the relatively brief time from my teenage years to my mid-twenties, language has changed considerably, influenced no doubt by a seemingly ubiquitous digital culture. There are no rules to a text message. There are no rules to a conversation. The only rule is that you make yourself understood. What may be clear to an urban youth will sound like a foreign language to the middle-class suburban white-collar worker. What the twenty-something hipster understands will sound like the chatter of aliens to the cloistered elderly. Rather than memorizing a thousand tedious rules jotted down after the fact by stodgy word nerds with tenure, why not indulge in a feast of language and express yourself in whatever way you see fit?
There is a great deal of expression in language. I know that sounds like a pleonasm. I mean that the use of the language tells you as much as the words themselves. Syntax, inflection, adherence or non-adherence to the rules, all contribute to our individuality. You can tell just as much about a person by how they say it as you can by what they are saying. It is what gives each of us a peculiar flavor that sets us apart one from another. Perhaps that is what bothers the pedants and rulemakers. They do not like things that are different than them. It is one of the defining characteristics of humanity that we focus on and magnify our differences rather than celebrating our sameness. It is astounding to think that I can communicate with someone born on the other side of the globe and we can still make ourselves understood. We have language to thank for that. Yet we concentrate on the symmetry and placement of the trees rather than being properly awed by the immensity and beauty of the forest.
I am not opposed to the rules of language. Knowing and adhering to them can be very helpful in making yourself understood. Having a large vocabulary can be helpful. Rather than writing an entire paragraph to get your point across, you can write a sentence with well-placed and exact words and achieve the same result, often with greater clarity.
I guess that is what I am trying to say. Language is about making yourself understood. If you are failing to make yourself understood, then you are failing with language. But if you understand the message and still feel the need to point out foibles and idiosyncrasies, the problem may not be with the speaker. You are willfully misunderstanding and I consider that to be the greater of the two crimes. Unless you are an editor, a teacher or a parent, there is no need to ladle your instruction on the rules of language out into the public arena. Of course, you are welcome to do so. You will find no opposition from me, but you are saying more about yourself than you are saying about language.
It would be terrifying if everyone spoke exactly the same, adhering to the “rules”. Life would become a grim flavorless exercise in homogeny. Popular music would cease to exist, stifled by the verbal predators. People finding an outlet in blogs, vlogs and message boards would be silenced. The uneducated and the poor would no longer have a voice. That may sound hyperbolic, but is it? If your choices are to speak “properly” or not to speak at all, what would happen to the global dialogue? Which voices would be left?
It’s okay to be annoyed. Natural, even. But when your annoyance becomes prejudice, when your frustration becomes pedantry, it is time to take a step back and realize what is important. Is it communication or is it how you communicate? Is it what you say or how you are saying it?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Inked Pen permalink
    October 4, 2012 1:00 am

    It’s like you looked at my soul…

    Awesome read.

    – Inked Pen

  2. October 4, 2012 2:19 am

    I think language is alive in the minds and speech of the young.

    • October 4, 2012 4:36 am

      Young and old alike.

      • October 4, 2012 4:41 am

        I thought of Shakespeare who forever changed the language, but I stand by language lives and grows and changes with the young.

        On the other hand, almost every business and personal problem I have seen my somewhat long life ( at least compared to you ( smile ) ) has at the root a communication problem. So there is value in clear communication.

      • October 5, 2012 1:14 am

        You make a very good point about clarity in communication. It almost destroys my whole argument. Though I would point out that listening (or reading) with openness is just as important as speaking (or writing) with openness.

      • October 5, 2012 6:29 am

        agreed, listening is fundamental to communication by everyone. Poor listening is really an insult to the worth of the other person.

        The first thing to learning a new discipline like medicine, engineering, computers, art or music is to first master the terms.

        Dialects tend to isolate and promote tribalism.

        Just a few thoughts, you made me think, nicely done. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I have used up my quota for the year. ( smile )

  3. October 27, 2012 1:36 pm

    Good read. I recognized tendencies I have in some of your examples! In a day when books were expensive and rare, strict adherence to rules of expression,and thus precision and clarity were perhaps more important than today,when there’s so much more conversation -even in print- with a lots of opportunities for clarification. And”rules” are evolving so fast that it is hard to keep up. As an attorney i see that precision in language is incredibly important in laws, contracts, legal opinions, but in most of life you are absolutely right that the issue really is precision in communication, which may or may not involve precise standard grammar.

    • October 31, 2012 6:36 am

      Thank you. It’s funny about precision in language from an attorney’s point of view. I’m sure it is incredibly difficult to craft a legal document that is both precise and comprehensive. It is obviously necessary. But then when all is said and done, legal documents (at least the ones I’ve seen [like the countless iTunes contracts]) are almost entirely inaccessible to anyone that is not versed in the law. It is a strange paradox.

  4. November 5, 2012 7:34 pm

    Yes! And sadly, it is usually people signing them that really don’t understand what the documents are really saying. It all has to do with the fact that courts interpret our laws- they define what terms mean in a much more extensive way than a dictionary. So certain very precise terms have to be used, and if not the interpretation of the clause might be something else, altogether. It is really almost like another language.

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