Good books generally (was: Literary Disappointments)

Mark A Mandel mam at theworld.com
Mon Feb 24 10:51:08 PST 2003

On Mon, 24 Feb 2003, John Klein wrote:

#The other problem is that communication occurs on a number of different
#levels. The top level, you might say, is that actual content of your
#sentence. So, for instance, if you're saying that it's nice out today, the
#fact that it's nice out is what you're primarily trying to
#communicate. However, you've actually communicated some other information:
#first, that this is the sort of day you consider to be nice, irregardless
#of its actual quality from the other person's perspective. Then there's
#the fact that you're not particularly quick with small talk. If it were
#speech as opposed to e-mail, there'd also be issues of tone and stance to
#worry about. In any event, one of these information-bearing factors is
#your grammar: if you use poor grammar, you're saying "I am a moron. Pay no
#attention to my opinions." This is presumably neither an accurate piece of
#information, nor one you actually want to communicate to the other person.

While my sense of taste agrees with you, as a linguist I must partially
disagree. "Poor grammar" in terms of normative (prescriptive, taught)
grammar is a matter of education and perception; you and I, both trained
and experienced in reading and writing standard, formal English, will
largely agree on how to rank a given piece of text, but the people who
"commit these violations" will not perceive a problem; and in an
important sense they are right. When they read each others' writing,
communication is unimpaired by most or all of what we perceive as their
errors. The people who write to email lists and newsgroups in the same
abbrevs U C on pagers are often not aware that their audiences in these
media expect different registers (roughly, styles) of language.

Also, many people who are extremely intelligent and literate
nevertheless do not have a mastery of English spelling, which is one of
the world's godawfullest ragbags of inconsistent, ill-fitting parts
(like the pieces of this metaphor). I have a knack for it, which I can't
claim credit for unless I'm willing to take blame for my lack of perfect
pitch or my strongly negative sense of direction. My twelfth grade
English teacher, one of the wisest and smartest people I've ever known,
couldn't spell.

-- Dr. Whom, Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoepist, and
   Philological Busybody
   a.k.a. Mark A. Mandel