Friday, April 17, 2009

On terms and clarity

The Facebookers are after me. This post arises from the same comment thread that spawned the last post.

I wrote

in my opinion the best way to observe grammar is by noting how fluent speakers purposefully form their sentences, not by how some people wish sentences were formed. and if i want to be a good writer -- i'll learn from the example good writers (tho not always from their advice).

Friend the Second responded:

Who defines "fluent" and "good writers"? To me, they are the ones who use the language in a consistent manner to convey information in the most clear and concise manner. So the people I consider "fluent", you would probably consider stagnant. For me, the language is a communication tool, not an art medium, as it hampers my work when … communication is not consistent. Perhaps the best "quick example" I can give is with the common names of organisms. Common names are regional, applied haphazardly, and often misused. Just because everyone calls members of the Coccinellidae "ladybugs" does not suddenly place that group of organisms in the Order Hemiptera, which is the group of "bugs", rather it remains a beetle (order Coleoptera), despite misuse by many people considered "good writers", or even "good scientists".

Fluency is not a measure of aesthetic quality or fluidity. Linguists often use "fluent" to describe speakers who learn a language with native ability and no syntactic, phonological, or semantic/pragmatic limitation beyond that which would be expected of their dialect. It's not about being smooth or melodious. Many stagnant writers are completely fluent. As I use the word. Other terms for this would be first-language or L1 speaker, or speakers with native competence and proficiency.

Defining good writing is not that important to me in discussing the issue. The argument is of limited interest to me generally. When linguists use examples from writers' works, it's usually in the interest of countering the argument that "masters of the language" won't use singular "their" or split an infinitive or put a preposition at the end of a sentence. It's a simple argument: If you think Shakespeare was a master of the English language, then shouldn't his example be worth considering? If you don't think he's that great, give me your favourite writers. You'll find that they break many of your favourite rules in their work. So who can be trusted to define the language if not the speakers?

Linguists know better than anyone that language is not a free-form art medium. It's a system. It's bound and constrained by real grammar. Not by an arbitrarily manufactured and promoted set of expectations. The premise of descriptivism is that languages are best studied when they are considered as they are, not as some would argue they should be. It's the difference between observation and imposition. Even if I have favored forms and aesthetic sensibilities, I must admit that language isn't defined by desire, no matter how well I can argue that it would benefit from this or that feature.

The issue of conventional labeling is a real concern in many situations. It's true that many of the labels used by laypeople don't correspond exactly to the labels used by specialists in various fields. That's a jargon and terminology issue, not really a grammatical one. When I say that use informs grammar, I'm not also saying that the use of one label necessarily controls the category to which that thing belongs. Categories can have fixed definitions, conventionalized by one group, regardless of the labels that are conventionalized by another group for items that might or might not fit in that category.

People who point and say "Look! A ladybug!" are in no way saying "Look! A member of the Order Hemiptera!" They're using a common word for the insect even tho an entomologist might not use that same word... anymore. But are they pointing at a ladybug? On this one I'm going with the majority rule. Yes. They are. Why is it a ladybug? Because that's what people call it. The common label doesn't need to find the approval of the scientific label. It doesn't even need to take it into account. In some circles a label might be discouraged. But being discouraged in one group does not make it wrong in all others. Come now. Is ladybug really bad grammar? Isn't it the clearest and most concise label the vast majority of the time? That's what establishing a standard of consistency gets us. Speak so they can understand you.

Appropriately this relates to the question of fluency and grammar and even English and language. As we saw, I was using fluent differently from the way my friend thought I was using it. And that definition was key to a part of my point. The purposefully fluentnative usage of fluent1.native speakers defines langauge, not the purposefully fluentpleasing usage of fluent2.pleasing speakers. I find much of E.E. Cummings' poetry to be wonderfully fluid and ungrammatical at the same time. Grammar has to be defined as well. Many peevologists like to use grammar to mean a style of writing that conforms to a list of chosen and imposed standards regardless of the actual use of native (fluent1) speakers. A standard is chosen and its merit is argued and the reality of actual usage is ignored.

When they speak of Language they are not thinking of the same system that linguists consider. For peevologists, The English language is a Platonic ideal that exists even if nobody is careful enough to speak it. For linguists the English language is the system, varied and mutable, that must be observed honestly, even when a more efficient and unambiguous system can be imagined. Such a system is much more interesting to me when seen as a field with barely visible borders—at times distant; at times nearby—rather than a vault with sturdy cement walls. We know those vaults exist. And we understand that they are safe. We know that they are fixed. We call them dead and frozen languages.


  1. Look, I'm 100% convinced.

    I would just like to hear more about this fascinating dynamic-system known as language. In fact, I'm to the point where grammar isn't very interesting to me... I'm more interested in the (what to call it?) "mechanism" (?) that changes language.

    I know that a linguist can teach me about the shifting meanings of words like "awesome" and "terrible," but I would be much more interested if there could be a systematic analysis of WHY the meanings of those words changed significantly while the meaning of, say (I'm guessing here), "change" has stayed relatively unchanged.

    See, what scientists supposedly do is collect a lot of data and then make hypotheses and finally reliable predictions -- and I'm guessing linguists do that too, because they like to think of themselves as scientists.

    BUT!!! -- I'm not convinced that linguists (or economists or psychologists) are really scientists, because, ultimately, and I mean way down deep, they're studying the mysteries of human nature, and everything I've learned as a lay-learner of human nature has convinced me that it's a special case.

    Economists get blind-sided ALL the time, and so do psychologists. And I'd bet my bottom dollar that linguists do too... but like economists and psychologists, there's probably and underlying embarrassment that causes linguists to overemphasize their scientific status.

    But watch: the real prophets can make effective predictions... here's mine: the word science will carry nowhere near the cultural gravity in 40 years as it does now. Indeed, it might almost slide into the category with "alchemy" and "astrology." Either that, or, it will be redefined, much more sharply, and linguistics, economics, psychology, and climatology will be excluded from its meaning.

    Ask me how I know. :)

    [By the way, am I a stagnant writer?]

  2. casey casey casey.

    first you'll have to explain to me how your faith in prophets allows you to use a phrase like "really scientists." what is a "real" scientist?

    you realize of course that physicists and zoologists and biologists and astronomers are all blindsided -- and rather than make it a weak science it shows that the investigators are perceptive and willing to admit that they don't know everything. science is not about a body of unquestioned facts. and scientific theory is not the fudging of scientific investigation and anomalies don't automatically undermine a theory.

    you know that casey. you know that too well for me to have to say more.

  3. Yeah, you're right.

    I guess most of the stuff I read about linguistics is stuff I can understand -- your blog and one or two others, occasionally. I'm sure the academic journals in the discipline do make reliable predictions and can explain precisely how and why the "dynamic-system" changes the way it does.

    For example, I'd be fascinated by a study showing that language usage shifts predictably after a presidential election -- if everybody stuttered more during Bush's administration, and said "Look," or "ahhhhhhh" more after Obama's election, that would be interesting.

    Of course, I understand it can't be that neat. But pure descriptivism is tautology... it's like classification of the kind that 17th century botanists used to love: endlessly gathering data and giving names to stuff. And I'm missing the analysis that shows me how the gears move, how the system evolves, etc.

    But you're right: I should've thought harder about that phrase real scientist.

  4. Regarding this:

    >who use the language in a
    >consistent manner to convey
    >information in the most clear and
    >concise manner

    This is a matter of usage and style, not necessarily of grammar. Obviously, communications have to be small-g grammatical enough for readers (speakers) to be able to understand them, but the type of gramamticality that includes proscriptions on split infinitives et al hardly guarantees clarity or concision. Following zombie rules is not inherently a way toward clearer communication.

  5. I'm sure you're well aware that in Britain, Australia, etc, we call them ladybirds, not ladybugs.

    I point this out only because it seems to me that our terminology is better suited than yours for making the point that terminology does not equal categorisation. It also makes mincemeat of the claim that terminology which doesn't reflect categorisation is tantamount to "misuse".

  6. that's a fine reminder outerhoard, and makes the point very well.

    i was in one conversation with someone who took up the cause of ladybird beetle being the "correct" name. it's the old lunch/dinner/supper argument.


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