Monday, May 05, 2008

Have red pen. Will travel. (part II)

But that first post was all about ambiguous structure and interpretation. The argument isn't about values and beliefs. What happens when I look at those.

OK. But this is just for fun. Like the TEAL folks, I'm neither looking to blame, nor chastise. (Actually I do chastise a little at the end.)

Issue 1:
On their about page the cruising copyeditors call these typos vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language. I disagree. This language is not delicate -- nor is its fabric. There is no danger here. The language is extremely resilient and relatively stable. And I don't think that typos are vile -- but I really don't care about overstatement.

Issue 2:
On the same page is the following claim: But slowly the once-unassailable foundations of spelling are crumbling. Once-unassailable? Are they serious? Written English has never been free of typos. No written language is. And anyone who has studied the stew-pot era of Middle English has to realize that we've moved towards uniformity not away from it.

Sub-issue 2.1: We believe that only through working together with vigilance and a love of correctness can we achieve the beauty of a typo-free society. It ain't gonna happen. And I happen to like what errors can tell us about the representation of language in the mind.

OK. So I disagree with some details in their statement of purpose. No big deal. But here's a statement I can't forgive -- Deck tells the story of a menu that listed corn beef instead of corned beef. They were going to fix it but on checking his Random House unabridged dictionary he found the alternate form listed. Perhaps, he worries, this is an example of a dictionary being too permissive. Permissive? What are dictionaries supposed to permit? No Mr Deck. This is an example of a dictionary accurately reporting the words people use. What else do you want a dictionary to do?

See Grant Barrett's advice on a dictionary purchase. Nowhere is there a suggestion that you buy a picky dictionary. The best dictionaries will push your boundaries. In all directions.

Think about it -- if dictionaries didn't report usage accurately, where would you go to find out what an unknown word means? Do you really want a dictionary constantly throwing up its hands and saying Sorry -- I don't want to tell you about that word because it's not how my favourite group speaks? We don't need dictionaries to tell us what we already know and to confirm the usage that we are already accustomed too. And how arrogant it is to think that the usage of certain groups doesn't deserve to be represented in a full description of the language. Dictionaries are best when they strive to present a body of the language broader than that which any individual already grasps. Or what's the OED for?


  1. I certainly hope that the person who scorns corn beef will likewise pass up the roast beef and ice cream. (One can with some confidence predict that the menu might also have offered grill cheese with can vegetables, possibly even old-fashion ice tea.)

    Incidentally, another term in flux like this might be the adjectival form teenage.


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