Monday, July 19, 2010

Mind Your Manners...and English

I find it interesting that some people are anal about English grammar and spelling.   See, English, unlike other languages like French or Korean, doesn't have a governing body defining what is right and what is wrong. Correct English is defined as being whatever is in popular usage. If you want to change an English spelling or rule, just get the masses to do it your way instead of the "right" way.

Some people say Dictionaries define what is correct. This isn't true. Dictionaries are in a constant game of catch-up.

I once blogged about how the meanings of words change.

A few case-in-points:
  1. The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2007 was "w00t". (That's right. Those are zeros in there.)
  2. Americans spell it "honor", "labor", "favorite". Canadians spell it "honour", "labour", and "favourite". Who's to say what's right? Awww heck, Americans call it "Zee" and Canadians call it "Zed". Again, who says what's right? The only way to say they're both right is to admit that there can be more than one right way to spell something. If that's the case, why kan't I invent mai own ways to spel things? I'm just creating my own version of proper Inglish.
  3. How to you spell it? Shakespear? Shakespere? Shakespeer? Other? In fact, in his day, people took pride in spelling their names in as many different ways as possible.
  4. @#$@&! is considered a swear word today by some (but not all). If you get a really old dictionary, it's in there as an actual word. Who decided it was a swear word? What authority do they have? And who gave that authority to them?
Consider this paradox. If someone uses English that's considered to be improper today, they would be considered to have improper English. They would be wrong. But, if their "mistake" catches on, then they will retroactively become right.  They will be seen as a pioneer.  Shakespere invented many words, and prolly broke some rules too.

This does raise some interesting questions, like:
  1. A lot of people use the word "literally" when they mean "figuratively." For example: "We were so late for our connecting flight, we literally flew through the airport terminal." They would have had to be superman. They mean "...we figuratively flew through the airport terminal" or "...we literally ran as fast as we could....". Nearly everyone makes this mistake. The question is "How long do words have to be confused with each other before they 'officially' take on the meaning of other word?"  In other words, when will "figuratively" literally mean "literally"?
  2. A lot of people don't know when to use "me" and "I" "properly". Here's the "rule": "I" is subjective, and "me" is objective. I think the way most people think of it is that "I" comes at the beginning of the sentence, or the end of a list of people. Otherwise, use "me." The question is: When will using "I" in the objective be considered "proper"?  Consider the phrase "It is I!"  It's considered proper, but how?

There is one other similar arena: manners. The primary reason behind manners is making people around you not feel uncomfortable. Passing smelly gas makes me feel less comfortable. Whether you stick your pinky finger out whilst drinking tea or not does nothing for my comfort level.

I had a landlord that taught me all sorts of manners, like tilting a bowl of soup away from you when you're getting towards the last bit of soup. He wanted to impress on me how my table manners would be the sole factor in how people thought of me. No matter how many orphanages I built and ran, no matter how many homeless people I fed, or illiterates I taught to read, if I picked up my peas with the top side of my fork, I'd always be seen as a little kid in an adult's body.

Like English rules, I find something odd about my attitude towards manners: If I see someone breaking a rule I know about, I think "What an oaf! Don't they know?!" But when I hear a rule that's new to me, I think "What?! You've got to be kidding! That's a rule?! Who came up with that, and on whose authority?  That's arbitrary!"

My favourite case-in-point is proper spaghetti-eating procedure. Do you use use a spoon or not? Here are some resources that say you don't use a spoon:
And here are some that say you do:
  • Yahoo Answers
  • My dad.
  • That old Italian man I saw eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie.
And this Life in Italy forum has references to both.

So, who's right? Or, like the English language, is "right" a moving target?  Who cares?  Mostly the people who know the rules.  I think that most people who don't know the rules, or even that the rules exist, tend not to care very much....until they know the rules.  Then some care.

If you feel compelled to leave a comment to set me straight on something in this post, feel free, but please state on who's or what authority you speak, and where they got their authority.


Andrew T said...

I think your sub-text is that we should accept that "enbloggened" is a word. According to google, you are the only user of this creation.

We need to be fairly accepting of different English usage, however straying from generally accepted conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and idiom can muddle meaning or be disconcerting for the reader.

I don't think I will ever get used to the non-word "anyways." Everytimes I hear someone use anyways it reallys makes me want to strangle them :-) .

Andrew said...

Yes, I agree with you about staying withing the constraints of generally accepted rules in order to not muddy the meaning, for the purpose of communication is to get the meaning from person(s) to other person(s).

The importance of clear grammar can be seen when studying another language. Grammar throws the whole meaning of what's being said.

Interestingly enough, we've lost the word "yon" in English, and we haven't suffered too much for it.

The literally/figuratively thing I mentioned in the blog does the same to me a the "anyways" thing does to you.