Re: Common Errors in English

Subject: Re: Common Errors in English
From: Dick Margulis <margulis -at- fiam -dot- net>
To: David Locke <dlocke -at- texas -dot- net>, TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 21 Feb 2004 21:09:51 -0500

David Locke wrote:

So we should elect a prescriptivist of the week? Idiomatic expression isn't
systematic, nor is it an error. Redundancy is what makes language work.


Think of _error_ in this case as transcription error. A speaker, having grown up in a culture, uses a phrase he or she believes to be commonly known by any educated person--a cliché, of course, or it would not be so commonly known. A listener naive to the literary source and thus lacking the redundancy of a familiar written expression, hears a different set of words over the background noise in the room ("for all intensive purposes" being a good example of this phenomenon).

There is a transcription error, analogous to a miscopied bit of DNA. It is not an error in the sense that the listener did something wrong; rather it is an error like a dropped bit on a transmission line. It can be corrected (and generally would have been corrected, by a teacher, before the advent of the Whole Language movement); or it can be left uncorrected and end up diminishing the longevity of literary works. But this is not about who is right and who is wrong or about assigning blame; it's about the integrity of the information transfer process.

It is fair to ask whether this is a type of linguistic change that is either worth preserving, worth resisting, or even worth noticing. One argument is that by democratically accepting everything anyone utters as being part of the language, we promote the rapid proliferation of mutually incomprehensible new dialects that will evolve into new languages. Given the rate at which we're killing off old languages, maybe this isn't a bad thing. A counterargument is that promoting mutual comprehensibility helps unify a culture around some core set of shared values. But depending on what those values are, this may not be a great idea, either.

My point is that there is no right or wrong answer in the ongoing tension between prescriptivism and permissivism. It all comes down to one's personal and political point of view, one's taste if you will, and there is no arguing taste.



RE: Common Errors in English: From: David Locke

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