One of my friends posted this over on FB with this question directed to me: “What say you?” Here’s the link, and I will wait until you’ve watched and listened and come back.

Stephen Fry on Grammar

What do I say, Eric? Firstly, that I adore Stephen Fry. 🙂

That said, I agree with some of his statements and disagree with others.

Language is an art. I’ve always thought so, or at least since I became able to articulate the sentiment. Hell, you can tell from the way I write sometimes, or from the way I speak (if we know each other in meatspace) that I’m a sucker for wordplay and language in general. I think it’s a dirty rotten shame that the way we teach kids English in this country tends to squash the enjoyment of language for its own sake into a narrow little box and makes that joy subservient to “getting it right”.

The primary reason language exists — possibly the only reason it exists — is so we can communicate with each other more efficiently or effectively. But to remove joy from that communication because it’s frivolous or not meaningful or “wrong” is just dumb. It’s shortsighted. And it is, frankly, wrong, even more so than “five items or less”. 🙂

So I agree with Fry in that, if the only reason you pay attention to the rules of grammar or punctuation or sentence structure is so you can point out somebody else’s mistakes, you’re actually missing the point.

And language is a living art. Words are added and dropped all the time — if that weren’t the case, we’d still be speaking…well, whatever the first language was, however far back it developed. And we’d be the poorer for it, both because it’s hard to pass along an idea if you can’t communicate it to another person, and because, hell, Shakespeare? Austen? Dickens and Dickinson, Welles and Gaiman and Niffeneger and Harris (Joanne and Thomas) and Asimov and Heinlein and Jefferson and a near infinity of people who took the language both for literary uses and “mere” communication of ideas and made it sing even without music. (And don’t EVEN get me started on what my songwriting friends do with the language. Bliss, I tell ya, entertaining, thought-provoking, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking bliss.)

Therefore, even as I acknowledge my own tendencies to pedantry (not to mention prolixity), I have to say that rules for the sake of rules? Waste of time.

On the other hand, Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Stephen King in On Writing said much the same thing, and THIS. EXACTLY. If you always write according to the rules of language, you’re going to suck sewer water. I’ve tried it, and it’s dry and stilted and convoluted and it doesn’t matter that I have such an expansive vocabulary that once, people I worked with (AHA! Ending a phrase with a preposition!) threatened to buy a dictionary to leave at my desk — not because I needed it, but because THEY did. It was bad writing, and it will BE bad writing, because until you know how and when and why you can break the rules, you don’t really understand the rules at all.

On the other other hand, I have to take a bit of exception to Fry’s apparent pooh-poohing of linguistic clarity. There is a reason it’s important to know whether someone is using a contraction or a possessive, to know that things you count have a different, yes, rule, than things you can’t count, and so on. If it hadn’t mattered, we probably wouldn’t have a rule. And it’s going to remain important until you can write a legally enforceable contract in LOLspeak or l33tspeak or whatever. We aren’t telepathic, so we have to have some way of being specific when necessary, to be direct and as unambiguous as possible, in order to effectively communicate. Again, if you’re pointing out mistakes more because they “break the rule” than because they impede clear understanding, you’re missing the point.

Shame on you.

Have fun with the words. We have a million or so of them, after all, and if I personally dislike “actioning” or “impacting”, I don’t have to use them — and neither do you. But play, for pity’s sake! Take some joy in this thing we have have lets us take thoughts out of our own heads and put them into someone else’s!

And on the subject of the split infinitive? “To boldly go…” What’s left to say? 🙂



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2 responses to “Wordplay

  1. Linguists don’t mind the “slippage in proper speech,” and see it as normal, but Grammerians, or people of that ilk, get all huffy. Good to see you in print; hugs and love

  2. I just spelled Grammarians wrong; just in from Boise visiting family; tired.

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