A Changing View of Language

I’m selective when it comes to slang; some words I take an instant dislike to, others grow on me. Who remembers rad from the 80’s? Does anybody still use the word to mean excellent? My brother and his friends picked it up very quickly at the time but I always hated it – an abbreviation and slang. Never! I will speak properly, thank you very much. Yes, I was more than a little pedantic as a child when it came to language and its usage.

Some aspects of that persist to this day. I make an effort to use specific words to convey nuanced meaning. I often feel frustrated when I am unable to recall the word for a particular concept. And, as I might have mentioned in an earlier post, I have been known to correct spelling and grammar on notices and suchlike. Obvious errors such as their/there, its/it’s and misplaced punctuation.

Spelling and grammar were drummed into me at school; I developed a view of the English language (the Queen’s English as it was named in several books) as having One True Way that was fixed and inviolate for all time. Grammar was a set of rules that formally defined sentence structure and, of course, rules must never be broken.

What happened between then and now? I slowly came to understand that this codification of language was incomplete and (shock!) not completely accurate. That wasn’t all: I also began to harbor the heretical belief that these rules obscured the truth that any language in current use is not static, that it is changing and evolving. The language is what people are using every day, not some idealized model locked away in a dusty tome.

So now I have reached the stage where I consider language to be a tool. The once-sacrosanct rules of grammar are now just a set of guidelines, advisory rather than prescriptive. The purpose of language is to transmit information, to allow one person to move an idea from inside their own head into the heads of other people. Accuracy is important – I want others to see the same mental pictures as I do, and to achieve this requires following the conventionally-understood meanings of words and phrases.

Spelling and grammar are not unimportant – they fulfill the function of improving clarity and comprehension. Errors introduce noise that obscures the message. If there are multiple interpretations of what I write or say then my meaning becomes unclear. Following the accepted conventions of language usage makes the job of the reader or listener easier.

So I no longer feel uncomfortable when I begin a sentence with a preposition. I feel free to occasionally split my infinitives. Slavishly following grammatical rules actually harms clarity because the words do not flow as naturally. Spelling is another aspect – on this blog I tend towards American English spellings because they will be more familiar to the majority of my audience. I am equally comfortable with either variant. I mostly avoid slang and jargon terms because they may be unfamiliar to some people; likewise I try to avoid terms that mean different things in different variants of English. Always be aware of your audience.

Say what you mean. Sound natural. Be accurate, clear and concise. Like any tool, language must be wielded with a degree of skill. Part of that skill is an awareness of the boundaries, without which your meaning fractures into myriad facets, each reflecting a part of the original but combining into a kaleidoscopic confusion of possible messages.

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2 thoughts on “A Changing View of Language

  1. I agree with this, my wife studied linguistics at uni so I have had the "living language" idea drummed into me.I can see the logic of biasing your spelling to American English if you think that is your audience, but something grates inside. Maybe it's a matter of identity, I don't see color, I see colour, and I actually paused reading in one of your previous posts when you were talking about a 'truck'. It did the opposite for me, I know you are English and so I was confused about this word, was there some subtlety I had missed? So I read on hoping it would be ok. My view is that if I am writing for an American audience, then adapt, but if mixed then as I am English, I will use my version of the language, and the Americans can make the adjustment.Ian

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