09 September 2006

The write stuff

As a followup to the previous post, I'd like to point out one of the functions which standardized "correct" language has, in every culture -- a function most linguists won't tell you about. It provides a quick way for educated people to identify each other.

This is particularly useful in a culture like ours where education is not reliably correlated with any other, more easily-visible trait. Educated people don't necessarily dress a certain way. They don't necessarily make a lot of money (though they are seldom extremely poor). There are certain professions where they predominate, but many of them do not work in such professions. They don't typically drive a certain type of car or live in a certain area of town.

But they do tend to speak a certain way. Or, more exactly, their speech tends to be free of certain features, while manifesting certain others. They do not say things like "if I would have gone" or "between you and I". They can correctly form relative clauses in which the word "which" or "whom" is preceded by a preposition. They may even know and correctly apply the distinction between "who" and "whom", though this last feature has almost vanished from actual spoken English. Such forms of speech thus signal to one educated person that he is in the presence of another.

The same effect is present, and even clearer, in writing. When I receive a letter from a person with whom I have not previously corresponded, I know that it will usually take many subsequent exchanges before I can tell how intelligent he is. But I can usually tell from just the first couple of sentences how educated he is.

Modern technology has blessed us with an invention which has vastly increased the entertainment value of bad writing. This is the computer spell checker, which enables the semiliterate to imagine that they are producing correct English without the burden of reaching for the dictionary. In fact, spell checkers merely flag strings of letters which are not real words. They do not catch cases in which a spelling which would be correct in a different context is wrong in its actual context.

Thus at various times I have seen, in writing which was actually informally published without being professionally edited, such locutions as a person taking a "vile" of some substance from a medicine cabinet, criminals being condemned to a "grizzly" fate (suggesting that their punishment was to be eaten by bears), money being "dispersed" to its rightful recipients, efforts to "reign in" activities of which one disapproves, and the evils of addiction to drugs such as "heroine" (spelled thus four times in one paragraph). In that last case, I could not resist writing to the editor/perpetrator and mentioning that I had been a "heroine addict" ever since seeing Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

I have heard that there are now also computer grammar checkers, doubtless equally effective. I have not yet seen any obvious examples of writing produced with their benefit.

But I can hardly wait.



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