Saturday, March 15, 2008


Last week I let myself to immerse in the world of English grammar once again. I realized that I normally used many words and expressions that were not correct. In a postmodern world I shouldn't care too much, but take the amount/number case. I am afraid that I said many times something like this: "There was a huge amount of people on that square". The signs in the supermarket usually say: "Express line. 10 items or less". In the first case, it should have been "a number of people", in the second one, "or fewer". Why am I posting it? Reading some "Lost" related discussion groups, I have realized that many Americans cannot spell properly. Couple of examples: "reckage/wreckage" or "intence/intense". These are not typos, they appear frequently. Is it worth the thought or it's just me, being picky and "germanish"?


Sergio said...

Well, first of all, a language isn't set in stone. There are no written definitive rules anywhere, it's not like a sport. Archeologists won't find in some cave in Britain the original draft of the English language.

So what's correct and what's not? The only goal of language is communication. So if it can communicate, it's right. Also, whether it sounds correct and good to any native speaker is very important.

In fact, I'm against "grammars" of a language when they are just telling you how to speak it, because they are normally going against popular use. In fact, when reading such grammars I always get the feeling that they are basically taking colloquial speech and creating rules to make "good" language essentialy different from colloquial language

The only grammars that should exist should be intended for those learning the language so they have a set of rules they can learn.

But there are no rules for a native speaker, there can't be no rules other than intuition because a native speaker can communicate with a particular language and that's enough.

Take "10 items or less". That sounds good to all native speakers as far as I know, and that means it's correct.

In fact, the people who tell you it's wrong are usually those scholars who think they speak a better language than the layman, just beacuse they choose to create different rules than those that are normally used with the only aim of sounding DIFFERENT

But in fact, it's them who FAIL AT LANGUAGE USAGE. Why? Take literary texts, for example. Very often, they use words that are difficult to understand, even for a native speaker. Words that are called "literary" but which could also be called "rare" or "hardly ever used". When they use those words because, allegedly, they are of a better "literary quality", they are failing, becuase many people won't be able to understand it

And such a text, that fails to convey meaning to more people than, say, colloquial language, such a text is very very poor. In fact, in my humble opinion, because of this failure to communicate many many literary texts are poorly written, but well, I'm fighting against windmills like Don Quixote I guess

Jan said...

Thanks, I can guess your views based on your blog, but I am still not completely convinced. When does the "correct" starts? How many people have to use a term to "codify" it? Who should codify it if the language institutions are such dinosaurs? Accepting that they are ones and that normal people are the rulers of the language, aren't we just simply creating chaos by allowing anyone to write as he/she wishes? Or better, where is the border where democracy/evolution/etc. becomes a chaos and anarchy?

Sergio said...

Well, writing was invented after probably thousands of years of oral language, and still people have managed to communicate throughout history and pre-history

In fact, when people use language, they use it to communicate and so, they will try as hard as they can to be understood, and that guarantees that people just won't use it in a way that makes communication difficult

For example, it's easy to communicate even if you travel abroad and can't speak the local language, with signs or whatever, let alone when people speak the same language

In fact, if those who write "reckage" found that they weren't being understood, I'm sure that they would either write it the normal way or, if they don't want to, they'd face the risk of not being understood and so their posts would be useless

In fact, not even when there are hard-and-fast rules can language remain the same. Latin, for example, was widely used in written texts but in fact as early as the time of the roman empire, actual latin used by people had changed a lot and classical latin was only used by writers. I think I read somewhere that some philologists argue that "classical latin" was never actually spoken by anyone, that it was a construct based on real Latin

English today isn't the same as the English spoken 100 years ago, and British English isn't the same as Southern American English

Languages change, and the only thing that those people can achieve by forcing people to abide by some rules is to create a gap between written -compulsory- language and colloquial language. The example of "less than" and "fewer than" is very good, because that would mean that in written language we should write "fewer than + countable noun" while nobody might use that in normal communication. That means that potentially two different language could arise, each with its own rules

Until the chinese republic was founded around 1910 or so, for example, written Chinese was written the same way it was written during the Tang dinasty like 1500 years before. That meant that almost nobody could learn to read because it meant learning a new language. Fortunately, they changed it so now written Chinese is the same as colloquial Chinese, and the only way to understand classical texts is to learn Classical chinese.

In fact, nowadays people in China and Japan study at highschool "classical chinese" just the same way people in the west learn "latin"

Sergio said...

Oops, I just realized I said there shouldn't be any grammars other than those intended for learners of a language.

What I had in mind was "normative grammars", that is, a grammar that tells you what's right and what's wrong. It's useful for learners because they don't have any intuition about the language and need some clear rules

There are also "descriptive grammars" which describe actual langauge usage -rather than tell you how to speak it-, based on data gathered by linguists from native speakers from which generalizations -hypotesis- are suggested and, of course, I have nothing against them, quite on the contrary!

Jan said...

It's very interesting, thanks for the comments!