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Thursday, 2 July 2009

In Praise of Pedantry

My title points, not to my own attitude towards pedantry, but to that of Oliver Kamm, whose new column on the subject was launched in The Times on Monday. He is a nephew of Martin Bell and lists among his relatives such illustrious folk as Adrian Bell, the novelist and compiler of the first Times Crossword and Anthea Bell, translator of the Asterix Cartoon.

In his introductory article he described pedantry as an obsession with linguistic precision. It prizes form over style. In support of Pedantry he noted that: Language is constantly changing, and a common form of change is decline. He is correct on both points. In the slow evolutionary climb of complex life from the primal slime, for example, the many billions of random changes that must have occurred in the organisms involved were almost all of them dead ends or retroressive steps. Almost all, but the few and far between changes that bestowed an advantage outweighed the rest in importance. Those that led to decline had, perhaps, their few days and then died out. Those that conferred some improvement, thrived and strengthened the herd or the tribe.

Kamm gave a few examples of what he might be on about over future weeks:The useful word "disinterested", meaning impartial, he wrote, is now widely used as a synonym for uninterested. Furthermore: When you hear the phrase "there is no question that" you need to guess from the context whether the speaker means (wrongly) "it is certain that" or (correctly) the opposite. All these linguistic changes involve loss. Well they do, but he with his literary connections, I woud have thought, might be well placed to realise that more is required of a language than just accuracy, which seems to be his one big thing. Of course, there are forms of writing where accuracy is the one over-riding consideration, but there are others, poetry being one, in which ambiguity is the life blood. And if, as he says, these forms and/or meanings are now widely used, then surely it is the case that they have been adopted as valid forms or meanings by the common usage of which he complains. What worries me is that he stated in his column that This column will deal with language and will prescribe usage.

Kamm did concede at one point that although Conventions in the use of language encourage clarity, there is no merit in conformity for its own sake. For example, more people complain about split infinitves than can explain what is grammatically wrong with them. The reason is that there is nothing wrong with a split infinitive except (usually) avoidable ugliness. Even then there are exceptions: "to boldly go" is a more evocative phrase than to go boldly, as anyone used to reading aloud would recognise. He then went on to speak of the similar case of the final preposition, pointing out that: There are many sentences in English that naturally end with a preposition where it is part of a phrasal verb (to find out; to look up).

That last example reminded me of a story that is told of Winston Churchill. His secretary so the story runs, had had the temerity to correct one of his speeches, a correction that had involved the removal of a final preposition. Churchill reinstated the original text and then wrote in the margin: This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put!

But as for his threat to prescribe usage, it has been tried before. Indeed, organisations dedicated to reforming English spelling have existed for at least four hundred years. In the 16th Century the Royal Society investigated the need for orthographic reform, and eventually formed a committee which included the poet John Dryden. In 1869 the Philological Society endorsed the cause; and the British Spelling Reform Association, which included famous writers like Tennyson and Darwin as well as philologists, was founded in 1879. Others, too, have tried, but it is not the way that the English language has developed and all attempts over the centuries to force it into that mould have failed. Many point to Webster as one who could have reformed the language, but in fact many of the more logical spellings attributed to him were current when he compiled his dictionary. He, too, was merely recording common usage. What happened next, though, was that the acceptance of his dictionary in America caused his spellings to be labelled American, and thus stigmatized, to drop out of use in England. English has always been governed by convention rather than formal code. We have never had anything equivalent to the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) all record usage rather than prescribe it. English has always gone its own way, and that is the strength and beauty of it. All that can be reasonably done is what Fowler did: set down the common usages as they exist at any one time. I have taken spelling as a fairly easily illustrated example, but in fairness should add that I have no way of knowing whether or not Kamm intends to be pedantic about spelling.

Maybe he is thinking of a Standard English. He will run into the same difficulty: there are no official rules for "Standard English" because, unlike some other languages, English does not have a linguistic governance body. Unless he is to set himself up in that role this could become a little repetitious. There is no set standard as there was, for example, a standard yard, kept available in London for the purpose of checking all other yards against it. This small illustration also makes the point that any standardisation would have to be in written form. For spoken English it would be impossible to construct a norm. Neither would a norm be socially or politically desirable, for it would acquire social (eg class) and political overtones as did BBC English, for example. It would inevitably be institutional. My last point is that in so far as there ever has been a standard there is now a double standard, English English and American English. Furthermore, English has become the lingua franca of the political and commercial world. It has been said that it is about to fragment into a very large number of international dialects. It seems to me that the tide is running against Kamm, but I shall watch his column (presumably it is to be every Monday) with great interest.


Karen said...

Very interesting post, Dave. (even if that is a sentence fragment - he, he, he)!

Actually, I believe that one of the fascinating things about language is that it is a living thing, changing and evolving as we do. I do, though, sometimes yearn for the more formal phrasing and vocabulary of the past, but I can quench my thirst in books.

Maggie May said...

I love what Karen said about books being the place to find language we miss. As language constantly evolves- unstoppably- we use stories, books and film to record the way were were.

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

Thank you for such an informative read.

Words are indeed an ever present playful encounter... and so...

I a poet, a word sharing vendor
Of life, in all its quest all its splendor.

Cloudia said...

"Form over style" is always a problem; part of the old
appearance/reality dialectic.
In the other hand, it's a shame to lose the precision and heft of individual words (tools) and using every one as an interchangeable, blunt instruments......
Thanks for posting today, Dave!
Aloha from Waikiki-

Comfort Spiral

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

A Post Script Dear Dave,

Dave, I so value your visits and your comments. Thank you. An exchange visit is always a pleasure. Your blog posts always present the significant, the beautiful, the provocative, the reflective, allowing the reader, observer to know, to question, to reflect, to touch BEING.

Magdalena said...

Hi Dave, I have to confess that I have not read you recent post yet, but I found your comment on Cuban's blog, and I decided to came. I will be your visitor in near future, I like your posts yery much, and I can almost here your English accent I love so much. All the best and see you soon :-)

Louise said...


Take a look at this for the answer to the 'operation aborted' problem.


Madame DeFarge said...

I'll need to read this column as I have a great interest in the English language. I admit being something a dilettante pedant, so retain a posture of perfection whilst allowing latitude for my own laziness.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have mixed feelings about all of this. I don't like being told what to do and yet I look for rules to help me navigate everyday life.

It surprises me that any language would have a linguistic governance body but I suppose if there was going to be such a thing then I'm even more surprised that English doesn't have one. I have an old dictionary that I bought in a charity shop which I thumb through every now and then for fun and there are just so many words that have fallen by the wayside and it's not even that old a dictionary.

I admit I'm not crazy about the direction I see our language going in but then no one is asking me to speak it and by the time it gets a grip we'll both be dead and gone. As it should be. Every generation has its own lingua franca and I expect my daughter will be moaning about the same thing in thirty or forty years time.

One man's evolution is another's collapse of civilisation. I know you could argue, "Well, if it's not broken then why try and fix it?" or would that be, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Is it that important to get it right? And which one is right?

Dave King said...

I totally agree with you about the fascination of language as a living thing. Your other point about finding formality in books is also interesting. Thanks for those two.

Absolutely agree. Thanks for commenting.

Rose Marie
I love that phrase: words as a playful encounter. That expresses a truth which is maybe deeper than it seems. Also the poet as a word-sharing vendor. Thanks for the contribution.

It is part of the balance that must be kept, I think. We cannot afford to go overboard for either at the expense of the other.

Hi, and welcome to my blog. Glad to see you anytime.

Yes, that seems to be popping up more and more frequently, just now. I am trying to sort it, b ut let me know if you discover anything that can be done about it from my end.

Madame DeFarge
I guess I've nailed my colours to the mast a bit, but I shall be interested to read what Kamm has to say week by week.

I am very sympathetic to your opening remarks. In fact quite a few Western languages have bodies of governance or something of the sort.

I, too, am not crazy about the way he language seems to be going, but then I wonder if it wasn't always thus - and in any case, what can be done about it? The cure might be worse than the complaint.

They are both right, or could be, or neither is. It's perhaps not a question of right and wrong. I think that's what worries me. It is almost analogous to the world's ecology. We are losing so many life forms, burt we do not worry about which ones should we preserve and which not.

As usual, a thought-provoking response. Thanks.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

I believe that relatively few of us learn what I shall term "proper English". I know that I didn't grasp all that my English grammar teacher might have hoped!

FireLight said...

"English has always gone its own way, and that is the strength and beauty of it." Well said, Dave. I totally agree. Even as a person whose job dictates being pedantic, I know that I am dealing with a living, breathing, lovable beast we call the English language not a fixed, remote system like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think poetry is the proper antidote for anyone suffering from severe pedantry. It is surely my escape from such a fate. (smiles)

readingsully2 said...

Hi, Dave. :)

Language is a living breathing changing soul. And, I think that is only right.

Look at the difference of Chaucer's English and ours today. Things evolve.

There are languages, too, that are created from two different exixting languages to become a language of its own. I find that interesting.

When I lived in in France in the 60's, French was pretty formal. I went back last August. I was amazed as to how many American words had become French. They literally just stick in an American/English word in the middle of the French. I was quite amazed by that.

I find too that there are times in my poetry when I create new words by perhaps changing their part of speech for a more powerful impact.....and so it goes.

I love when you visit my blog and leave me comments. :)

I have a Fourth of July poem up now....well sort of....anyway it is in honor of the Fourth. Come on by when you get a chance.

Poetikat said...

Interesting post. In my circle (small though it may be), I believe I'm considered to be a pedant. I can give you one particular example: despite its seeming acceptance, I still grate whenever I hear the word "impact" used as a verb. Just because we have slipped into certain usages and they are treated as the norm, I am expected to go with the flow and think it's okay? I simply cannot.
Then there's the word "nu-clear" ...


Phoenix said...

Very interesting and informative. It is good to know of the old, and I feel equally good to embrace the new. It is not for nothing that English is the language of the world today...

Conda V. Douglas said...

Fascinating, Dave!

This post brought to mind what my mother always used to say about Latin (a language she taught at the college level), "Oh, Latin's EASY to learn. It's dead, it never changes."

Yes, we have to have rules, elsewise it's all gibberish, but the problem is with a living language is that it exists in change.

Friko said...

Hi Dave,
Oh dear, I must count myself amongst the pedants to a fair extent. Of course, language evolves constantly, language is my working tool and I must keep abreast of changes AND learn to use them. English is, however, a language I have learnt academically rather than at "my mother's knee" and I am quite sad at how often the language is mistreated and abused by those who should know better.
May I also say that I admire your elegant way of handling it, no ugly clumsiness here.

Linda said...

In my world of teaching language to young teens, I am constantly reminding students that essays cannot be written in "text messaging language". There are conventions that need to be followed. At the very least, the reader needs to understand what the writer is attempting to say. Dave, your post talks about the lack of standard measurements for using English and the evolution of language that is happening in our world today. When these young students mature, let us hope for computers that will spell out the words the texting letters represent.

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...


After spending some time today in preparation of the post just completed, I thought of this very post. Thinking of the particular word, "spell" as denoting, "a magical charm or incantation." This evening, I trust I was under the "spell" of words, magically presenting themselves for revelation.

I invite you to: "Albrecht Duer’s Melencolia."

In gratitude for knowing...

Best always,

Rose Marie

Dave King said...

Nor I, not by a long chalk - but how proper was proper English anyway?

Absolutely, and there are always restricted codes for specialised use when accuracy is the all-important consideration.

Thanks for that. It must have been fascinating to experience developments in the language like that. Like not seeing a person for many years, I suppose, you become more keenly aware of how they've changed.

You had me puzzled there for a moment: nu-clear? Then the penny dropped. Am I slowing up, or what? Thanks for the response.

Very welcome to the blog. Thanks for commenting, and well said, indeed.

Mm, I never got to grips with Latin, I'm afraid. It may not have changed, maybe I did - too much! Thanks for the comment.

Many thanks for that and your kind comments. I do not think that sadness at our tendency to abuse language could be construed as pedantry. As Kamm himself said, One man's pedantry is another man's liberalism. (Something like that - quoting from memory.)

I do understand your concern, I have noticed the same tendencies in my two grandsons, but we have always managed to handle more than one code at a time, both in speech and in written language - I don't speak in church the way I would at the rugby club, for example; the kids don't speak in class the way they do in the playgound - or do they these days?

Rose Marie
Shall be there anon. Thanks for stopping by.

Tabor said...

I guess as long as the English language is used for both communication and art it will have to be flexible. Being a modern language and the language of a fast moving culture it grows painfully. I liked this blog post as it brought much to think about and was like going back to school for me. My brain has become so lazy.

Linda said...

I have special needs students so it is difficult for them to understand socially appropriate language. Some of them have other languages at home, so there are even more complex issues. I understand why the students opt for the easy response, letters replacing words, especially when they see older students messaging. I am happy to know we are on the right track encouraging them to always use whole words, spelled accurately in essays, as convention dictates. I love that your posts challenge me to think critically about art and language. Thank you for being patient.

Carl said...

Hi Dave,

I enjoy the ebb and flow of the English language. It is interesting to watch local vernacular become adopted into common usage. I enjoy hearing regional patios as I visit different regions of the US and (someday) England.


A Cuban In London said...

I will have to read Oliver Kamm's column on another occasion, especially as he seems to have focused on one of my passions: language. But it seems to me that he has picked up on the wrong language, that is, English.

For starters, the absence of a central ruling body like the Spanish Language Academy or its close French relative, liberates English from the perils of sounding archaic. And I should know, I have been banging for years now about getting rid of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.

In Oliver's case, the examples he quotes are almost too imperceptible and minute to notice, so, yes, it does sound like pedantry. English, for better or worse, is our lingua franca (that is until Spanish overtakes it in ten or fifteen years) and it gets input both from native and non-native speakers. I am in the latter category which means that when I am speaking or writing in English, occasionally I have to stop and consider whether my speech or text is closer to the Anglo-Saxon lexicon or to my own romance one.

I enjoyed this post and I agree with you that as long as English lacks that certain standard, Oliver is in a fight of his own.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Jeanne said...

I've noticed that I'm in the habit of waiting to come visit you until I have a small chunk of time to devote to the excursion. Partly because your posts are so thought-provoking, and partly because you generate such interesting comments.

If any one thing about English were to be standardized, spelling would be a good thing to choose. A language where "comb," "bomb" and "tomb" are all spelled the same, except for the initial letter, is incredibly difficult to master!

Crafty Green Poet said...

I think English is fragmenting into many different Englishes, fascinating evolution

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

As a retired educator I know that one can "prescribe usage"; however, colloquialisms seems to override the correct usage of the language. In my case I use a more proper form of the language in my writing than in my speaking. Old habits die hard, but one can be on the lookout for errors in ones own speaking & writing.
I had heard Churchill's quote some time ago, but had forgotten it. The gent had a sense of humor!
I look forward to reading your comments in the weeks to come.

Sandra said...

Over my head, but I still managed to enjoy the read.

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