January 14th, 2003

The gentleman is always properly dressed

Reasoning why

Occasionally, in the course of conversations with people, my mind comes up with questions that don’t have ready answers. These usually get filed away, but remain active in my thoughts, gnawing at me until I either give them enough attention to finding a solution (or manage to stumble blindly into one.) The experience is not unlike that last bit of a bagel’s skin that gets stuck to the roof of your mouth. It’s nothing, a speck, but for some reason you can’t leave it alone.

A while back, one such question came up around "proper" use of language. It seems that there’s a fair amount of consternation around the idea that other people be required to write and speak correctly. The idea was baffling to me. I can be obsessive about my use of language, often to the point of rereading things I’ve written and rewriting passages that are awkward or don’t reflect my meaning as well as I should like several times (and then repeat the process several times) before I am comfortable (though never satisfied) with the results. On the other hand, I seem to be far more forgiving of the personal quirks that other people bring to their writing and speech.*

I tend to look at language and usage as incredibly fluid. Perhaps this stems from my studies in history where I worked with primary sources that predated the great trends towards standardization (which itself is a relatively modern contrivance). I’ve read beautiful letters penned by incredibly literate souls that would have driven me up the wall had I obsessed over the accepted usage of the day or what simply may have been their casual errors. Perhaps I’m just more forgiving because it is the meaning behind the symbols and not the symbols themselves that are of import to me.

Since the question came up, I’ve actually been reading about language sporadically, trying to get a better understanding of my relationship with it and puzzling through why I am comfortable with people using it as they see fit. A couple of days ago, I stumbled across this:

There is more or less effective use of language, more or less fashionable use of language, but to introduce the concept of correctness is usually only to confuse one’s thinking. In mathematics, the correct answer for two-times-two is four, and answers like three and five are incorrect – incorrect for everybody, not just for mathematicians – but in language, the difference between I saw and I seen is not well described by saying that one is correct and the other is incorrect. The difference is that I saw is characteristic of the most fashionable dialects, and I seen is not; the locutions have different impacts. Anyone who wishes to be accepted in the United States as a cultured person had better say I saw and avoid I seen, but such choices are too subtle and varied to be well described by the rigid distinction involved in correctness. Linguistic preferences tend to grow from dialects and to reflect their complexities; in the main, they are best understood on that basis.
-Charlton Laird, "Language and the Dictionary"

I like it.


*I do notice differences, but they don’t upset me. I’m certain that wisdom_seeker will remember my teasing her over her long "o" in potato, but that was more in fun than out of a desire for correction. It’s along the same lines as her smiling over my unintentional archaisms like, "If I had my druthers," or, "You will rue the day."
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