Should grammar pedants relax?

Proofreading_and_editing_blog_12Professor Simon Horobin, an English professor at Oxford university, has been addressing the Hay Festival. According to the Daily Telegraph, there were gasps of shock from the audience as his speech proceeded. He included gems like “People like to artificially constrain language change. For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed. I am not saying we should just spell freely, but sometimes we have to accept spellings change.”

Let us try to turn a blind eye to the split infinitive, and focus on some of the points made in the speech:

  • Apostrophe use should be more widely discussed. What a sensible point. Discussing things spreads knowledge. If more of us were aware of how to use an apostrophe that would save a lot of stress, ambiguity, & argument. Then we can use that time on something more constructive.
  • Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?  Well no, but like many other non essentials it helps to oil the wheels.
  • It was not sacrilegious to suggest that “they’re”, “their”, “there” could be spelt in the same way.  Passing over the abuse of the term sacrilegious, the fundamental problem here is that they all mean different things.  If we are following the professor’s logic, why not spell pork, bacon, gammon & ham the same way. They are all pig meat.
  • “Thru” or “lite” might not be such a sin. In a sensible context of course they aren’t. Both forms are useful in texts & tweets, but isn’t it good to retain a spectrum of communication? More formal context needs proper language.  Perhaps the next formal letter I write to a stranger I should start “Hi there!” & finish “Bye for now”.  Somehow I doubt if that would get a favourable response.
  • Those who study Middle English have found 500 different spellings of “through”, including drowgh, trowffe, trghug, & yhurght. So we have made progress since then. We have standardised the language so we can think more about what is being said & less time deciphering what others mean.

It is good for language to develop, but development should lead to progress.  Clouding the meaning is a step backwards.

English is a beautiful language. Why do we accept changes that add nothing & make it ugly?

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About The Proof Angel

I am a freelance editor and proofreader, working with a wide range of clients from large companies to individuals. I can help you to communicate clearly by carrying out a final check, or by suggesting ideas get your message over. I also have a sideline in textiles, as The Rainbow Angel.
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3 Responses to Should grammar pedants relax?

  1. To read this, it is clear you disagree with most if not all the suggestions. I’m a computer programmer. The difference between “for” and 4 and “four” is really important. In fact, 10, 010, and 0x10 are all different numbers (10, 8, and 16 respectively) in some programming languages. Programming languages are incredibly strict, and have very mechanical and (mostly) unambiguous grammars, and yet we still write computer programs that do the wrong thing. Unambiguous English grammar is worthwhile for this very reason. The apostrophe, “there”, “their”, and “they’re” are all disambiguators in the language. They are worth preserving and teaching, just like we preserve and teach “is”, “was”, and “will be”.

    I disagree in the case of “thru” and “nite” and “rite”. Since they do not introduce ambiguity, and they are easier to spell, they improve communications. That is, they “oil the wheels” by reducing the effort to communicate correctly. I don’t think anything is gained by having “formal” and “informal” modes of address (e.g., writing “through” in formal writing, but “thru” in informal writing). That doesn’t oil any wheels, that simply adds additional rules and effort to communication without any compensating benefit to either the writer or reader.

    Amusingly, you use the ampersand instead of writing out the word “and”. For whatever reason, that bothers me. We shouldn’t let homophones like “4” and “2” and “U” get substituted for real words. I’m equally reluctant to let symbols like “&” and “@” enter the language as words in their own right. This is somewhat contradictory to my other opinion, because they are unambiguous. I guess it’s a matter of aesthetics and I might be antiquated in that regard.

    • I can’t help thinking that there is quite a bit of spin in the newspaper article. It is that sort of topic, isn’t it?

      My main objection to thru & rite is that they are ugly, & unnecessary when the words are not that hard to spell. Although they do have their place when abbreviations are needed.

      It is interesting that you don’t see a role for formal modes of address. I think we are a very long way away from getting rid of formal writing & forms of address in certain situations. Whether that is a good thing or not is debatable, but anyone who fails to recognise the distinction is merely putting themselves at a disadvantage.

      I love your comment about my use of &, a symbol that was once regarded as the 27th letter of the alphabet, & can be traced back to Roman times. I use it because it is concise, unambiguous & quick to type, & therefore more efficient.

  2. McCollonough says:

    Yes English is a beautiful language hard to learn, but beautiful non the less.

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