Thursday, August 18, 2005
Language Mavens Unite!
Like a schoolmarm, I reprimand other bloggers for mistakes of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Perhaps "reprimand" is too harsh. I gently point out better modes of expression.
"How petty and picky," you say. "Who made you the internet English maven?"
I critique only serious blogs. The musings of bored housewives and the classic angst of teens, while of some interest, lack the pretensions that invite criticism. But blogs publishing political or social commentary with the intent to inform and persuade beg for language intervention.
Serious communication shows respect. The attempt to inform or persuade begins with the notion of brains in the audience; the assumption readers posses the wit to recognize the truth contained in the writing. The care, or lack of it, taken in the composition reflects the degree to which the author respects the reader. The author's grasp of the elements of writing also marks his or her maturity, education, and intelligence.
Even very minor errors distract literate readers from the message intended by the author.
I find myself thinking, "It's Ronald Reagan, not Regan" instead of whatever the writer meant me to understand.
When I wrote for money, some twenty years ago, I studied writing intensively. I loved A Civil Tongue and Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman. The Transitive Vampire by Mog Cinders amused, entertained and educated me. I still read about writing. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss made it to my Christmas list for this year. And no real writer works without the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
I also looked forward to the weekly column on words by Bill Safire, published in the Sunday paper, back in the day.
With the advent of the internet, vastly superior resources now await our pleasure. We see an online guide to English Grammar.
Online encyclopedias, dictionaries and thesauri wait at out fingertips. Word processors check spelling and grammar as we compose. Even blogger contains a spell checker.
One man responded to me by saying, "I wrote in hast." And his next comment "Excuse me, haste." My dear fellow, if the errors result from haste, that tells me you don't feel the effort to communicate accurately important enough to devote adequate time to it. You fail to take yourself seriously, so why should I? What makes your blog different from the teens mooning over the hormonal struggle of adolescence or the endless public worship of one's child seen on so many blogs?
With every word, we demonstrate the standards we hold ourselves to. With every piece of writing, we show the world what we are made of.
"Words are holy," wrote Bill Tammeus in a recent newspaper column. He pointed to quotations like, "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" (John 1:1).
Now, I may quote scripture, but I don't write it. And I don't expect others to, either. The rare lapse must be forgiven. Please understand this constitutes a plea on behalf of good writing and an explanation of why it matters. No one expects perfection. That's an aspiration; an unattainable but worthy goal.
It's one of my favorite essays about the English language... Even in 1946 when Orwell wrote it, the English language was deteriorating. Here's a good part:
"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
Orwell's attitude towards language plays an important role in "1984," which I read in my teens. You will recall the function of the "Ministry of Truth" was to spread lies. And one of the chief methods used to dominate the population was debasement of the language.
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