Thursday, January 12, 2006

Grammar Police: Rules are meant to be, like, broken

We have the Académie Française to thank for the fact that the French say "ordinateur" instead of adopting the word "computer" like every other language popularly spoken today (except possibly Klingon and Esperanto -- and I'm not even sure about Esperanto here).

One reason the English language has such a huge vocabulary is that there's nobody to stop those pesky foreign words from coming into common usage -- and English speakers have collected quite a lot of them from all over the globe. In particular, a whole slew of French words were adopted into the English language in the centuries following William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 -- so many that my husband and other French people have joked that French is actually a subset of English.

By contrast, since 1634 the French have had the Académie Française to stop alien vocabulary invaders at the border, notably casting out tons of English words that are slightly modified version of words that originally came from French.

If you're American, you probably see this as a great opportunity to mock and ridicule the French, and rightly so! I'm allowed to poke gentle fun at the French now that I'm practically French myself, and you can too since you're reading my column.

One time I was having a pleasant dinner with a grammar-expert friend of mine, and I made the mistake of saying "He's older than me," which my friend immediately corrected as "He's older than I."

Being ornery by nature, I refused to accept this as a correction. In my universe, "He's older than me" is perfectly acceptable usage. I actually have a whole elaborate theory as to why this type of phrase is OK (and it's more than just "because the other sounds snooty and affected"), but I'd rather not go into detail about it here because I'm trying to avoid frightening people and/or putting them to sleep.

The real reason, however -- which I explained to my friend -- is that unlike French, English is not governed by an academy. Sure there are guidebooks like the Chicago Manual of Style, but I don't have to recognize their authority. Free the pronouns, man!

I live by all sorts of controversial theories of language. For one thing, I disagree with the theory that the use of profanity indicates that the speaker necessarily has a small vocabulary. The latent mathematician in me can't keep from pointing out that actively avoiding profanity technically makes your vocabulary smaller, not bigger. Sure it's easy to over-use naughty words, but if you know how to use them well, you can achieve certain effects that you can't create without them.

An even more controversial theory I subscribe to is that it's not always wrong to throw a bunch of redundant uses of the word "like" into a sentence, as teenagers are so fond of doing. (Or at least they were in my day -- I can't speak for modern teenagers since my knowledge of popular culture tragically ends in about 1989 like the poor sap in this one Onion article.)

My theory is that the redundant "likes" are a way of playing with the rhythm of the language. Of course they can be grating if thrown willy-nilly into every sentence. But one or two small ones every now and then won't do you any harm. Plus a humorist can't help but want to play with every toy in the linguistic toybox, so I can't reject the practice out of hand. After all, a redundant "like" affects the cadence of a sentence, and in humor writing, cadence and timing are everything. (I've been a humorist for, like, months now, so I'm qualified to be giving lessons. Hey, at least I don't have low self-esteem or something!)

I also like to make up words, and every now and then I manage to slip one of them past the copy editors (like "sparklitude", hehe!).

Given my inclination for language mischief, it seems natural that I would one day decide that I'm a humorist, where I get to use things like poetic license (as in "is that a mistake, or is it 'poetic license'?"), and if I accidentally offend somebody I get to say "Dude, lighten up -- it was a joke." (Rest assured, gentle reader, that no humorist would ever abuse these powers.)

Even so, it was a bit of a convoluted path to get there.

At first, I'd planned to be a princess/movie star. But that didn't really pan out. So for a while I was a mathematician, and I segued that into computer programming and mommying. Then I thought it would be fun to be a computer tech book writer. That was a dangerous move though because when I got my programming book published, it went straight to my head, and I decided I should be a serious author. Of course it didn't take much of that before I figured out that this literary fiction stuff is, like, super hard.

So here I am.

I haven't decided yet what I want to be next, but I'm always open to suggestions.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 29, 2005


Anonymous said...

very funny

Todd O. said...

playing with language, is in fact *very* English, and goes back to Old English and the way meaning is formed in Old English. I would highly recommend the recent book _Inventing English_ by Seth Lerer. Playing with the language like that is built into the bones of english (we constant coin and combine words, not just borrow them, for on-the-spot utility and meaning-making; this just doesn't happen in most other languages and confuses the hell out of other language speakers when we do it. Try doing that in French. I dare you. hehe)

That said, I'm also a believer in grammar. Rules allow meaning to be accurately transmitted to listeners and conversers and readers. Even unwritten teeny language groups will make fun of someone who doesn't speak in accepted grammar. It facilitates and indeed enables understanding.

One of the really tricky bits in contemporary English is the amazing amount of non-native speakers. Learning a second language requires grammar to be formerly taught. But as a professor, I can also say that native speakers need to be discussing grammar as well, if for no other reason than to understand the possible clarity issues they will have if they chose to disobey the grammar rules (especially important in writing).

Massive influxes of non-native speakers is one of the primary reasons why American and Canadian Englishes have fewer vowels and smaller vocabularies than British English. I'm not sure this is exactly an impoverishment of the language, but it is a change that we should think about.

I'm neither a descriptivist or a prescriptivist. There are times when it is enough and/or beneficial merely to describe; there are others when it is necessary to prescribe.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Todd!!!

I agree overall, especially regarding the importance of clarity given the number of non-native speakers.

In my heart, though, I'm more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist. It just bugs me when people try to keep language in place by marking interesting non-ambiguous new common usages as "wrong".

Worse, I don't like it when people who (by luck) were born into the dominant dialect imagine that people born into a less-favored dialect are less intelligent because they haven't learned "correct grammar." On the other hand, it's true that it's useful to have a common, dominant dialect that everyone understands, and the fact that educated people learn to use it increases the perception that speaking the dominant dialect equals intelligence...

Carla said...

Um, "he's older than me" is grammatically correct; "he's older than I" is incorrect.

You only say "I" if you are the subject of the sentence. I'm 99% sure on this.