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Language and Social Mobility

19 Jul 2004 by Ryan Singer

Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, has some things to say about standards in spelling and grammar in this Telegraph piece. Arguments for Writing English the Right Way are a dime a dozen, but Truss shakes things up with an appeal to social mobility:

If you encourage people to write the way they talk, class divisions are ultimately reinforced, even exacerbated. I’m a working-class girl who read a lot of books and grew up to - well, to write this piece in The Telegraph anyway, so maybe I have an old-fashioned view of education as the instrument of social mobility. But it’s pretty clear to anyone that, if children are taught that “getting the gist” is sufficient, everyone stays where they are.

For more adventures in English debates and argyle sweater-vests, see the excellent In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower: Three Days in San Diego with Charlie (the bad subject) and Nine Thousand Other Anxious Academics at the 119th Annual Modern Language Association Convention.

15 comments so far (Post a Comment)

19 Jul 2004 | but that's just me said...

Seeing as this was evidently written by a Brit for Brits, I suppose the dumbing down of school children isn't solely an American epidemic. As a writer and a mother, I'm driven insane and scared to death by the whole "getting the gist" ideology. I've even heard of schools that are giving "close enough" grades for math, as if 2+2 could equal anything but 4. Just as there are definitive answers to math problems, there are definitive ways to spell words and definitive rules of grammar.

I've been told the reason behind this ideology is to not hurt a child's self esteem. Oh, okay, so they'll feel great about themselves as children because they got "close enough," and then they'll feel like complete idiots when they get out into the real world. No wonder homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular.

Very good piece, Ryan. Thanks for sharing.

19 Jul 2004 | Tommy Williams said...

Heh. Odd. I'm not sure whether it's due to an over-enthusiastic subeditor at the Telegraph or what, but I'm not sure that even that extract is correctly punctuated (the comma before 'if' in the last sentence is the bit I'm not certain should be there).

Regarding the article itself: I sort of agree, but I think good written English is more important for its own sake than for social mobility. Everyone should know the rules of English grammar, but unless he or she makes really obvious mistakes then it's unlikely to do him or her any harm - if only because people reading it are barely more likely to recognise the errors than the writer is.

19 Jul 2004 | CM Harrington said...

Elasticity is key. While I do agree with both Lynn Truss and the above poster in that the "horseshoes and hand grenades" style of education is an anathema, one must also realise that language is a fluid transport for communication.

Spelling and grammar have changed so much over history that one can't say "This is the definitive way of doing things" and have that definition be concrete for all eternity. We call some spellings and uses of phrase archaic today, but they were perfectly acceptable and in common use fifty, 100, or 200 years ago. One must allow the language to evolve organically. The question then becomes: "what do you incorporate, and what do you leave out?"

For that question to be answered, one must consider implications of class and race upon the language. Some say "Ebonics" is a valid subset of the English language (spelling and grammar), but the more urban popular culture creeps into neighbouring society (could be construed as "white" society) the more the language is in common use. If language is used and understood (consistently) by the majority, does it not "become" the language of society?

I don't have the answers, I only post this to foster discussion on the topic. Personally, I think spelling and grammar from currently published (spelling and grammar) books should be used to judge "correctness". Over time, new words, spellings, and grammatical structures will be incorporated into these texts, and only then will they be considered acceptable.

To think, "impactful" has become a word, according to the 2003 edition of Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English. I do fear for the future of the language.

19 Jul 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

Clear writing demands clear thinking, and to be clear you must be both accurate and precise in your use of language. "Getting the gist" promotes fuzzy writing, which in turn leads to fuzzy thinking.

That said, I think language educators need to strike a balance between the rule-bound grammarians and the loosey-goosey gist-getters. I used to work with an editor who once tested me on my understanding of the distinction between "that" and "which." I gave a correct answer (for American usage; Brits tend to be less strict in this case), but she dismissed it as wrong because it wasn't expressed in the strict grammatical terms that she had learned. She was narrowly rule-bound that she couldn't see that my shorthand distinction ("'that' defines; 'which' informs") was perfectly compatible with the rule she used (which I can't even remember now, but it said the same thing using a lot more words).

19 Jul 2004 | matt said...

very unrelated but i just cliked on one of the google ads (i normally ignore them) and it was reaaly usefull. i even bookmarked the website. redlightgreen will without a doubt cut down my citation writing time.

however, writing skills are neglected by many schools and colleges. it would be great if some effort was made towards this but it will not happen. i thinks it's part of the reason so many students copy and paste from web sites when writing essays

20 Jul 2004 | mark said...

It's a disgrace that English has become the new esperanto. It's a disgrace because the writing system is such a mess, it's filled with so many exceptions that even native speakers make mistakes. I don't see why it can't be reformed. Spanish went through a writing reform in the 1700's and it's still largely phonemic. Here's a study that indicates that children studying English take two and a half years to reach the same point than those studying romance languages.

20 Jul 2004 | Fish Sauce said...

Flexibility is the key to English's overall success as a language. It began as a very uniform language with very strict rules and few exceptions. And if it hadn't become the bastard language it is today, it would probably be a dead one instead. English is robust because it is a bloody great mess.

That doesn't make it superior to the romance languages (or to any language), but it does give it a clear advantage. Difficult to learn, easy to adapt and manipulate once learned.

That being said, you have to watch out for 'evolution of language' arguments. Ebonics evolving as a dialect is not the same as "English" evolving as a language.

20 Jul 2004 | Travis D said...

As a purveyor of "correctness" in matters of grammar and punctuation, Lynn Truss is a fraud. Do not miss "Bad Comma: Lynn Truss's strange grammar," Louis Menand's brilliant takedown in the 6/28/04 issue of The New Yorker.

After a survey of some of the astounding errors that riddle Truss's book, Menand comes to the heart of the matter:

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is really a “decline of print culture” book disguised as a style manual (poorly disguised). Truss has got things mixed up because she has confused two aspects of writing: the technological and the aesthetic. Writing is an instrument that was invented for recording, storing, and communicating. Using the relatively small number of symbols on the keyboard, you can record, store, and communicate a virtually infinite range of information, and encode meanings with virtually any degree of complexity. The system works entirely by relationships—the relationship of one symbol to another, of one word to another, of one sentence to another. The function of most punctuation—commas, colons and semicolons, dashes, and so on—is to help organize the relationships among the parts of a sentence. Its role is semantic: to add precision and complexity to meaning. It increases the information potential of strings of words.
What most punctuation does not do is add color, texture, or flavor to the writing. Those are all things that belong to the aesthetics, and literary aesthetics are weirdly intangible. You can’t taste writing. It has no color and makes no sound. Its shape has no significance. But people say that someone’s prose is “colorful” or “pungent” or “shapeless” or “lyrical.” When written language is decoded, it seems to trigger sensations that are unique to writing but that usually have to be described by analogy to some other activity. When deli owners put up signs that read “‘Iced’ Tea,” the single quotation marks are intended to add extraliterary significance to the message, as if they were the grammatical equivalent of red ink. Truss is quite clear about the role played by punctuation in making words mean something. But she also—it is part of her general inconsistency—suggests that semicolons, for example, signal readers to pause. She likes to animate her punctuation marks, to talk about the apostrophe and the dash as though they were little cartoon characters livening up the page. She is anthropomorphizing a technology. It’s a natural thing to do. As she points out, in earlier times punctuation did a lot more work than it does today, and some of the work involved adjusting the timing in sentences. But this is no longer the norm, and trying to punctuate in that spirit now only makes for ambiguity and annoyance.

20 Jul 2004 | SH said...

On the same note, an older but interesting article on the use of text messaging and chat room lingo and its impact on American language.

"...as more people use the lingo for text messaging...it is more likely to spill into speech or writing."

20 Jul 2004 | One of several Steves said...

It's a disgrace that English has become the new esperanto.

I think you're going for "lingua franca." Esperanto is a made-up language that has existed for decades, not centuries, and has never been in wide usage anywhere.

It's a disgrace because the writing system is such a mess, it's filled with so many exceptions that even native speakers make mistakes. I don't see why it can't be reformed.

The writing system makes perfect sense. English is a highly structured lanaguage semantically, and it's written pretty much as it's spoken. The *spelling* system is widely inconsistent.

But it's also perfectly logical from a linguistic point of view. With some exceptions, the spelling system was solidified and made consistent around the time of Shakespeare, which pretty much coincides with the invention of the pritning press. Our spelling hasn't changed much since then, which is a good thing. Because it makes it easier to read somethign written 500 years ago.

The problem is that about 150-200 years after the spelling system was standardized, English went through an enormous pronounciation shift. The sound we associate with "e" used to be the letter "i" (as it is in most other western European languages), the sound that we associate with "a" used to be "e," various diphthongs (like the sound of I, or the vowel in "house") changed, etc. Now words were no longer phonetic. But it would have been more chaotic to change the spelling of everything and basically require everyone have to relearn how to read.

The other "problem" is that English is so liberal with its adaptation of other languages. Our most-commonly used words are Germanic in origin, and spelled (and pluralized or conjugated or made past-tense) that way. But the largest part of our vocabulary is French in origin, and typically spelled that way. In general, English has tended to keep the original spelling of words rather than anglicize them.

Any "reform" effort, in addition to being doomed by huge amounts of inertia to overcome, would be incredibly difficult in English because of the fact that it is so diverse. And, really, it's largely just the spelling that's problematic. Most non-native speakers I've known have found the language fairly easy to learn to speak, but difficult to write because of the spelling. The main difficulties with learning are that it's highly idiomatic, and that it has so many words for similar concepts. Those sorts of things are speaking and usage patterns that could never be reformed, because language simply doesn't work that way.

20 Jul 2004 | One of several Steves said...

The problem with Truss' approach, as well as the "gist" camp, is that both seem to ignore context.

There is not just one English, written or spoken. And I'm not referring to the differences between American and Australian and British English. Each speaker uses several versions of the language, with varying degrees of structure, formality, changing grammar and lexicon, etc.

I use more formal English when I'm making a presentation to a client. I use less formal English when I'm having beers with my friends. I write with one version for work, in another with friends. Etc.

None of those versions is inherently right or wrong (especially linguistically speaking). But they're appropriate sometimes and inappropriate in others.

Prescriptivists make the mistake of thinking that certain rules and standards need to be followed all the time (never mind that many of them try to prescribe rules that have no actual valid linguistic basis anyway, like the ban on the use of the split infinitive or ending sentences with prepositions). "Gist" people make the mistake of not realizing that there are times where clarity and proper usage are important. It's all about the context.

20 Jul 2004 | mark said...

One of several steves:

Yep, my bad, I was referring to written language. It would be ridiculous to ask for a standardization of spoken language.

What I'd like to see is the International Phonetic Alphabet being used as a standard alphabet for international communications and foreign language aquisition. I'm not a native English speaker and I'm constantly surprised at how natives pronounce words I always thought where pronunciated in some other way.

20 Jul 2004 | but that's just me said...

I agree with you, Steve. My problem is not with the way we view and utilize the English language as a whole within our society. I also write and speak differently depending on who and what I'm addressing. My problem is with those who find it acceptable for our school children to be "close enough" when it comes to the English language.

I personally think that children need to learn the basics of correct English so that later in life they can have the choice of being versatile in their use of the language (choosing the appropriate form for the situation).

Perhaps the subject of social mobility becomes moot once children are past a certain age (high school or college), but in the beginning I think knowing that there are certain rules to follow helps a child to progress intellectually.

20 Jul 2004 | One of several Steves said...

Mark, on one level the phonetic alphabet would make sense, but then there's the problem that pronounciations in many dialects can be so different. For instance, the word "ball" in American English uses a completely different vowel than is used in English English. So which phonetic spelling gets used? I know German has the same problem, which would explain why I can understand people in some parts of the country perfectly fine and cannot make out what people are saying in other areas to save my life.

"But that's just me," I completely agree that "close enough" isn't close enough for school. Rightly or wrongly, the ability to function in the standard dialect is considered by the population as a sign of intelligence, and it does students a disservice for their adult lives if you don't try to teach them how to communicate properly when that's needed, whether written or spoken.

20 Jul 2004 | Al Abut said...

Travis: wow, fraud is a strong word. Have you read her book or are you just going by the opinion piece against her? I'm reading it now and I'm about halfway through without having found a thing to disagree with. Yes, her writing is a tad overpunctuated, just like you'd expect from a typical Brit, but her book is not presented as a manual or textbook at all. It's just as much a treatise as it is anything else, an informed opinion piece imploring us to think a bit more, with plenty of examples of different viewpoints on the "proper" way to punctuate sentences. There's an amalgamation of references from the dictionary, subject matter experts, and historical record, as well as her own opinion (which is always clearly presented as such).

And for the record, it's also way more interesting than I thought the subject could be.

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