Medium versus message versus Safire

Subject: Medium versus message versus Safire
From: Moshe Koenig <alsacien -at- NETVISION -dot- NET -dot- IL>
Date: Thu, 8 Aug 1996 21:34:50 PDT

>>Wolf Lahti wrote:
>>Lisa Higgins
>>>
>>>If your meaning is clear and unambiguous, your language is
>>>grammatically correct.
>>>
>>I don't think anyone would argue that "I never didn't want to do nothing
>>so little" (a favorite phrase of one of my professors) is grammatically
>>correct, regardless of how unambiguous its meaning. The
>>Language-is-what-is-spoken School can obviously be brought to ridiculous
>>extremes. We have standards, and it behooves us to abide by them.

>I would. I do think it's unclear, but it IS grammatically correct. It
>doesn't even violate any "hard" usage rules, as far as I know.

You know, the discussion is absorbing in itself. Let's read on:

>The "Language-is-what-is-spoken School" is called linguistics. I
>challenge you to find me a real scholar in the field who will say
>otherwise.

>And I'm not sure who the "we" is you're talking about, but standards are
>not objective. There is such an animal as Standard American English,
>which is what they teach news anchors to speak and students to write,
>but that's one standard for one audience, and is no more "correct" than
>any other dialect. It's a lingua franca for a large, diverse place with
>a lot of regional and social dialects. It's the 'safest' form to write
>in (partly because of the artificial nature of written language, and
>partly because of its wide acceptability), but if I knew that the
>audience I was writing for all spoke a given dialect, I'd use it to
>address them (as long as I, too, was familiar with it).

>>Frank Herbet said, "Language can carry any burden we choose; all it takes
>>is agreement, and a tradition on which to build."

>Is this supposed to be an appeal to authority?

>>Too many people wave the standard of the first half of that statement
>>(a la Lewis Carrol's Humpty Dumpty) and forget about the agreement and,
>>especially, the tradition. My deciding that "trammel" means "bedroll" or
>>that every sentence should end in "the" does not make what I say or write
>>grammatically correct.

>That's absolutely absurd. Firstly, semantics is not the issue. Colorless
>green ideas sleep furiously, you know. Secondly, as a native speaker,
>the only way you would end every sentence in 'the' without realizing
>that it was ungrammatical were if you had a brain injury or one of a
>tiny handful of genetic conditions that cause the grammar functions of
>the brain to not work correctly.

>>It may be argued that the rule-following school can likewise be taken to
>>extremes, but given a choice between that and linguistic anarchy, I
>>happily opt for the former.

>Dude. We've had linguistic anarchy all along. If we hadn't, we sure as
>hell wouldn't be speaking English right now. The whole concept of
>'proper' vs. 'improper' usage a relatively modern one. Shakespeare,
>Chaucer, and Milton never learned the "grammar" you're talking about.

>Now, as I've said, I am not going to reply to any more posts on this
>topic, but I'd like to suggest that before you go on about linguistics
>any further, you pick up an elementary book on the subject and read it.

>An understanding of basic linguistics can go a long way toward improving
>your skills as a communicator.

I assume that all of you missed William Safire's article entitled
Copulative Verbs - the Missing Link. I highly recommend it to you all.
It relates to the purist use of the predicate nominative and the
resultant plight of the intransitive verb, which he labels a
"copulative" verb. As he puts it, "the copulative verb is a hooker
(that's a mnemonic that will work)" and points out how the
grammatically correct and proper nominative case that follows the
copulative has often suffered. Some of the examples he brought
forward included "Nobody here but we chickens," "We have met the
enemy, and he is we," and the like. The ending was dynamite. I'll
not reveal it so as not to spoil it for the people who rush to read
it, but it nicely points out how the hypercorrect can misfire.

I live in a country where there actually is a government committee
that checks the purity of the vernacular. France does the same. This
practice may keep the language nice and free of alien influences, but
it tends to make it staid as well. The support for my theory is the
irrefutable fact that both French and Hebrew have a major infusion
of slang from non-native sources, and while the purists may frown
when they hear the slang, it's still the spoken language.

Not that a technical communicator can afford to use the spoken
language, however. It's impractical to use words and phrases that
date the writing, that confine its comprehension to a specific
locality, or that make the meaning a sort of in-joke for an elitist
group. That's NOT what the profession is all about (and I did the
unthinkable by ending with a preposition)!

Now why did I copy all the above dialog? To show that I really was
relating to it and not just expounding freely. Basically, I think
that all of us in the profession are in agreement that clear, lucid
language is imperative; anyone who thinks that it's optional has
either been forced out of the field or has some connections that
keeps the work coming in. We can argue about any number of things,
but readable language is what it's all about! (Again, a final
preposition; I really must take a break.)

- Moshe Koenig

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