Previous Contents Next

Diatribe On Language

Words are the tools we use to communicate ideas. Without words it is not possible to live outside your skull and interact with the other (hopefully word-using) people around you. Anybody who has visited a country whose language they do not speak is well aware of the feelings of isolation and frustration that are caused by an inability to speak (and an inability to read if the written form is markedly different from your own).

However even when people are supposedly speaking the same language we still often find that the words that are used can convey meanings that are quite different from those intended. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that the Americans and the English were two nations separated by a common language.

Sometimes it is a matter of accent (or, less commonly, dialect). The average New Zealander’s utter inability to pronounce any vowels on the left of the sound spectrum often makes them incomprehensible to other English speakers. "What have pigs got to do with hanging out the washing?" my mother once asked me in bewilderment after having been involved in a charming (but from her point of view increasingly surrealistic) discussion about the merits of various different kinds of clothes pegs.

The effect seems to get worse the further south you travel – I know somebody from Invercargill who (on a good day) can say "o" and "u". On a bad day only "u" can be articulated. Perhaps if I ever visit the Chatham Islands I will find that they gave up vowels years ago and now communicate only with consonants.

More seriously, the communication gap can also be widened when perfectly familiar words are used in ways that fail to match their meaning. I came across just such a phenomenon recently when I sat through a Microsoft training course. The training material kept using the word "enumerate" in a context that I found very puzzling. The word means "to count" (though more subtle actions may also be implied). However the training course used it in a sense that seemed to suggest the action of looking in turn at a collection of things and doing something unrelated to counting on the basis of what you found. In other words to "iterate" through the collection. Once I figured this out, I simply assumed that in American English "enumerate" had a different meaning than it had in English English and thought no more about it.

Later, after the course, I looked the word up in both an American and an English dictionary – the definition was the same in both! Enumerate simply does not mean what the Microsoft training material claims that it does. By bending the meaning for their own purpose until it broke, they not only failed to communicate with me, they actually completely mislead me, which is worse. Only Humpty Dumpty can get away with forcing a word to mean what he wants it to mean. Microsoft are nowhere near that powerful (yet). All they succeed in doing is muddying the waters.

The written word is a communication tool that that tends to require an even greater precision than the spoken word. When we speak we can often get away with solecisms that would be unacceptable if written down. For example, many people say asterix when they would (of necessity) write asterisk (I attribute this laziness of speech to the enormous popularity of the eponymous comic book character).

A more recent phenomenon is the elision of contractions such as "should’ve" into the phrase "should of". In terms of pronunciation it is not hard to determine why this has happened (try saying the two phrases out loud). However a far more worrying trend is that the latter phrase is now starting to appear quite regularly in printed material (I have seen it in several novels recently). This is simply not acceptable. If you wish to avoid contractions (as many people do) then spell the words out in full ("should have"); don’t try and mangle it into something that it isn’t.

The increasing popularity of word processing software and spelling checking programs means that few people these days make spelling mistakes (unless they abuse the program, or are too lazy to invoke it in the first place or they fall into the homonym trap – see later). However there exist, as yet, no grammar checkers worthy of the name. The only ones I’ve come across seem to do little except make delphic pronouncements concerning the passive voice; something that I find less than helpful.

As a consequence of this, many modern written communications tend to come littered with errors of the "should’ve / should of" variety and again, meaning and precision are sacrificed at the altar of utility.

Four techniques form the basis of our written language, and if any of these techniques are misused we progressively lose clarity of expression, and meaning vanishes before our very eyes. The techniques are spelling, punctuation, grammar and rhetoric – and I’m going to talk about all four of them and try to demonstrate exactly what I mean.

Straight out of the box, a spelling checker will tell you about the words you have misspelled, and you can instruct it to fix them with a fair degree of confidence. However after a few months of carelessly hitting the "Add" button and putting the misspelled words into your custom dictionary you start to let the misspellings trickle through. Some of these mistakes are caused by accident and some by the honestly held but mistaken belief that the computer is wrong and you are right. I am appalled, for example, at the number of people who seem to think "alot" is the correct way to spell "a lot" and who have therefore added it to their dictionary. However no spelling checker will warn you about words that are spelled differently but sound the same. Homonyms are not synonyms and English has rather too many for comfort. Consider the following paragraph:

Their is only one way to discuss weather the whether is fine. Your on you’re own if you think they’re are others. If you think their might be rain you should ask someone if you could borrow there umbrella, or perhaps where an overcoat. If someone asks wear you got it, be discrete. If you are scene at the seen of an umbrella burglary, refuse to talk on principal. Carrying a discreet number of umbrellas is not a crime unless your school principle says so.

It passes my spelling checker with nary a murmur, but every single use of :

there / their / they’re,
your / you’re
weather / whether
discrete / discreet
principle / principal
seen / scene
where / wear

is completely wrong. I really don’t know how many homonyms English has; I think it might be an open ended list.

Punctuation symbols are used to divide sets of words into meaningful blocks. They indicate breathing pauses and the word stress; the end of one idea and the start of another. Read your words out loud – you’ll soon see where the punctuation has to go as you breathe.

Most punctuation is actually pretty robust and can be mis-used without detracting too much from the sense. Misplaced or omitted commas just add awkwardness and a vague sense of disquiet. The use of the semi-colon is becoming a dying art. However the full stop is not so forgiving. Omitting it (or putting it in the wrong place) can completely destroy the sense. Let’s try the above paragraph again:

Their is only one way to discuss weather the whether is fine your on you’re own if you think they’re are others if you think their might be rain you should ask someone if you could borrow there umbrella or perhaps where an overcoat if someone asks wear you got it be discrete if you are scene at the seen of an umbrella burglary refuse to talk on principal carrying a discreet number of umbrellas is not a crime unless your school principle says so

Without full stops, that already difficult paragraph degenerates into virtual incomprehensibility. Even worse. Are the full. Stops that are placed. At the end of things that. Are not sentences. The jerky effect that causes is most disconcerting and again meaning tends to vanish.

Perhaps the most abused punctuation symbol is the apostrophe. There are those who claim it is an archaic irrelevance and they would like to get rid of it completely. However removing the apostrophe from our written language would greatly increase our homonym list – how would you distinguish, for example, between "were" and "we’re" without it?

The apostrophe indicates missing letters in contractions ("should’ve") or the possessive ("Alan’s book"). A case can be made that even when used as a possessive it really indicates missing letters. An older form of the language would have written "Alan his book". Confusion arises when the word is already a possessive (as in "its book" which does not require an apostrophe) or a homonym with missing letters as in "it’s a book" (i.e. "it is a book").

Putting a full stop at the end of a sentence presupposes that you know what a sentence is. The structure of a language (its grammar) defines this sort of thing and in English it can be a slippery beast indeed. Unlike many languages, English is almost completely uninflected. Where other languages change the ending of a word to indicate its function in a sentence, English depends on the position of the word to define its function.

There are remnants of an older, inflected language in modern English. Consider the sentence "He saw him". You can’t turn it round – "Him saw he" is nonsense; "him" is not allowed in the position reserved for the subject of the sentence and "he" is not allowed in the position reserved for the object. The feminine form is even more startling – "She saw her" and "Her saw she". Mostly it doesn’t matter though. "The sheep saw the sheep" can swap around quite happily.

In the first two examples the words are inflected in the sense that the spelling of the word defines what job it does (subject or object). However nobody would ever inflect a sheep and staring at the spelling of the word in isolation tells us nothing at all about its function in the sentence. The old joke that capitalism is the exploitation of man by man and communism is the reverse doesn’t work in an inflected language, but English has no problems with it.

The structure of an English sentence is superficially much simpler than the structure of (say) a German or Russian sentence since we don’t have to bother with word endings. However this seeming simplicity conceals a great subtlety and constructing a valid English sentence is not always easy without some pre-knowledge of the rules since the words themselves give no hints.

Even assuming that all of this works properly, we are still left with the style of the writing, the rhetorical tricks that dress up the prose in an attempt to get the message across. The way you say something can profoundly affect the way the message is received. If I said "Hey! Titface! Pass the sodding salt!" You would be less inclined to oblige than if I’d said "Could you pass the salt, please?". Such stylistic tricks are called rhetoric and Aristotle wrote a whole book about it (called, not unnaturally, Rhetoric).

The tricks are common coin and most of us use them without thinking, and without knowing their names. A metaphor allows us to draw a relationship between two things that are similar to a common (unstated) third. To say that a robin is the herald of spring means that a robin is to spring as a herald is to the message he brings his prince. No literal relationship is intended. A simile, on the other hand, would imply a literal relationship and we could then say that a robin is like a herald of spring (which is nonsense, since there is no such thing as a real herald of spring, but never mind). Almost invariably a simile reveals itself by involving words such as "like" or "as if". Usually a metaphor is abstract and a simile is concrete (which explains why the abstract simile I used above doesn’t work properly). Aristotle remarked rather drily that a simile is a metaphor with an explanation.

A synecdoche (lovely word – I have no idea at all how to pronounce it) is a usage whereby a part stands in for the whole. For example using the word sail to mean a ship or describing a computer system as a box.

Metonymy uses a name associated with an object instead of the object itself. Thus we might say "New Zealand has decided to send troops to Iraq" when we really mean that the government of New Zealand made that decision. Metonymy should not be confused with antonomasia where the surname of a person is used as a generic term – quisling or macadam or hoover or boycott, although the latter is rather odd, being a verb as opposed to the more usual noun.

With hyperbole we have an exaggeration for effect ("If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times…"). Litotes gives the same effect by use of the negative and often comes across as a dry or amusing understatement ("I am not unused to saying this…").

The list of rhetorical devices that we employ for effect is again probably endless and highly elaborate classifications of them have been the delight of rhetoricians and grammarians over the centuries. An enormous list of hair-splitting definitions was published by Quintilian in a book called Institutio Oratorio in the first century AD and the list was rendered into English equivalents by one George Puttenham in the 16th century. I bet most authors would be overjoyed to have their books remembered and used for as long as Quintilian’s was!

Spelling, punctuation, grammar and rhetoric are legitimate subjects of study and generations of British schoolchildren have learned to hate them. I studied them quite intensively for 5 years under the bucket category of English Language. The lessons learned so painfully are probably the most useful I have ever acquired and scarcely a day goes by that I don’t use them.

We are talking about communication and clarity of expression. It is simply not possible to communicate effectively if the communication channel is corrupt. The language is flexible and will take a lot of abuse before it finally gives up – but the greater the degree of corruption, the more the rules are mistreated, the harder it becomes to extract any meaning from the text. Just consider how much meaning was destroyed in my umbrella paragraph by only two simple abuses of the system.

Rules are made to be broken and language is an ever-evolving thing (God forbid that it should ever stagnate). But you simply cannot break the rules meaningfully if you don’t know what the rules are in the first place; that’s a given. Many people today do not know what the rules are because nobody has ever thought to tell them. The study of spelling, punctuation, grammar and rhetoric has largely vanished from our educational system. People who produce illiterate prose (and therefore fail to communicate) are generally not stupid, they are merely ignorant. And ignorance is correctable.

I have broken many of the rules of English in the writing of this article. Perhaps you would like to play a game and see how many violations you can find. I did it deliberately to enhance the effect I was trying to achieve and in every single case I knew what rule I was breaking and why I was breaking it. Today that is an increasingly uncommon skill.

We have to learn the rules of all our daily activities. We can’t drive a car until we know the rules of driving, we can’t use a computer system until we know the rules of clicking a mouse, we can’t buy a round in the pub until we know the rules of money. Nobody demands or expects perfect knowledge of these things; just enough to get by. Is it too much to expect a similar working knowledge of your own language? I don’t think so.

Previous Contents Next