Friday, 20 August 2010

Guest Post: Alex Jenkins

We're emerging from our annual summer hiatus to provide you with a special guest post from AMS student Alex Jenkins. Hope you're all having a good summer - see you in September.

Homeric Nods and Matters of Agreement

…et idem indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus

(And yet I also become annoyed whenever the great Homer nods off)

Horace, Ars Poetica

Since I’m both a rabid fan of David Foster Wallace’s work, and an incorrigible grammar snob, I was delighted to come across this in-class grammar worksheet he devised. There are ten sample sentences, each with one fundamental grammatical error. Spot the mistakes, without cheating, and follow the link to see if you’re right. I managed five. One could justifiably argue that example two is disorienting even when corrected, and that eight becomes stilted when the split infinitive is fixed. But the fact remains that these are supposedly basic usage errors, and I seem to be screwing up at least 50 percent of the time.

Didacticism is never a becoming trait, and the dour yet strident pedantry of grammar purists is particularly unpleasant. No one can avoid using language, but its usage is paradoxically complex and commonplace. H.W. and F.G. Fowler, two doyens of linguistic prescriptivism, spend nearly twenty pages discussing the intricacies of using shall and will correctly, and even then concede that “southern Englishmen” have the best chance of instinctively using the correct term. [1] Granted, this conundrum is archaic (I have never lived outside East Anglia, and my shall/will instinct is non-existent), but there are still plenty of examples where “correct” usage is counter-intuitive. And in some instances correctness is jarring. Take the following sentences from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: ‘Come out, sons and daughters of Adam. It’s all right! It isn’t her!’ [2] They seem straightforward, sensible, and certainly comprehensible. Nevertheless, “to be” is a linking verb (copula), and so technically the antecedent pronoun should be nominative, i.e. I, They, We, He, or She; the sentence should therefore be rewritten as “It isn’t she!”

To make matters worse, the grammatical terms used to describe parts of language rely on nomenclature that seems arcane and irredeemably tedious. What is an ergative verb? What is a modal auxiliary? [3] Moreover, why do the edicts of traditional grammatical usage even matter? This last question is the real kicker, and one to which Wallace devotes considerable attention in his review-cum-essay “Authority and American Usage.” [4] Wallace articulates several arguments for adhering to what is called “prescriptive” usage, and he rightly argues that many of its confusing rules exist to preserve linguistic distinctions, to eliminate ambiguity, or to foster maximal readability. And, unpalatable as it may be, a significant percentage of potential readers will be distracted by gratuitous split infinitives, and denigrate any author who uses them. A point that Wallace underplays, however, is that knowing these principles, and applying them carefully, signals, in an understated and classy way, a writer’s expertise. Just as a layperson will trust the specialist knowledge of a mechanic or surgeon, a reader will trust a writer who understands the mechanics of writing, whereby words, even synonyms, have their own discrete identities. A precisely chosen word is engaging because it offers a window on the infinitely expanding, polysemous nature of language, a linguistic network that fizzes and crackles with latent significance. In a sense, all words are loaded words: all ineluctably relate to, and derive meaning from, each other. Yet some words are semiotically richer than others. Traditional prescriptive grammar therefore functions as a safety net and comfort blanket. It signals to a reader that the writer can puncture the solipsistic bubble of her own thoughts and can communicate, via prescribed grammatical rules, with authority, wit, and humanity.

It sounds mystical and abstract, but this is necessarily so. It exemplifies what Wallace called “compassion” for the reader, and compassion, like love and hope, is so abstract it can perhaps only be discussed through art. But compassion involves a generosity of spirit, which, in writing, means that what is written rewards the reader’s attention. Language is not private but communal (q.v. Wittgenstein’s The Philosophical Investigations), and is the mechanism by which private thought becomes public, but it is meaningless unless it follows public rules. If I want someone to take what I write seriously, it should show awareness of long-established usage conventions. Or, to put it another way, if I decide to use “that” when I really mean “which”, I had better ensure a reader realizes it is a conscious decision, and not merely carelessness.

The question of meaning has occupied philosophers for millennia, and is convolved and dizzyingly metaphysical. But there is an important related point that is concrete and easily recognisable: what one says may bear little relation to what one means. Suppose you are a parent with a teenage son. You ask him how he is and he says, “fine,” but the reply is sarcastic and dripping with existential affront, indicating, remarkably succinctly, an intractable Weltschmerz, which feeling is recognisable but irremediable, so why exactly bother and why-did-you-even-bring-it-up just shut up already. So the obvious point: none of the aforementioned is spoken, but is instantly recognisable because of vocal inflection, facial grimacing, and fatalistic posturing. Spoken language allows participants to recognise these extra-linguistic cues; writing, however, must rely on the words themselves to provide context and meaning. The upscale term for this is that speech inheres a metaphysic of presence – writing, a metaphysic of absence: the reader is usually physically absent when an author writes, and the writer absent when her work is read. This is one reason deconstructionist critics consider writing a more accurate representation of language’s ambiguities and complexities: the focus has to be on the words themselves and what they signify because writing cannot correct readers if its meaning is misconstrued.

This is pertinent, because a common rejoinder to grammar precisians’ criticisms is to say, “Oh, everyone else will know what I meant.” This is often true, but does not obviate genuine linguistic confusion or ambiguity, the classic example of which is the sentence, “There are many reasons lawyers lie, some better than others.” And even when one does know what the writer means, the error can still be irritating. Those persons with unusual names must be resigned to their frequent mispronunciation – lingual mangling, erratic ictus, or some other prosodic wincer. They will usually know what their would-be interlocutors mean, but the error – which now, as a consequence of its countless previous iterations, causes an involuntary, abreactive cringe – is still exasperating. The rather lengthy point being made here is that prescriptive usage is the grammatical equivalent of getting someone’s name right; and it’s usually simpler and more considerate to one’s readers to do so.

Happily, however, where such consideration is evident, and the consequent trust is earned not arrogated, many “errors” can be excused. [5] The Roman poet Horace coined the proverbial phrase “Homeric Nod” to refer to continuity errors in the Iliad, but no one would argue such mistakes affect its literary merit. Likewise, consistent grammar expiates many sins, and those solecisms that remain, and are commented upon, may be justified by recourse to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: ‘Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem/Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream.’ [6]

Notes and References

[1] H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd edn., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 142-161. The former Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is often upheld as the vade mecum of prescriptive British English grammatical usage. “Prescriptive” usage advocates certain rules for “correct” writing, but what constitutes correctness is naturally subjective. To paraphrase Wallace, and to save a lengthy note, one can no longer claim to be an “authority” on language ex officio; authority is now granted according to the persuasiveness of one’s arguments.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, 2 (London: Collins, 1989), p. 98.

[3] For those sufficiently interested, an ergative verb is one that can be used both transitively and intransitively (the kettle boiled vs. I boiled the kettle), and a modal auxiliary expresses necessity or possibility, e.g., must, shall, will, should.

[4] David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage”, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown, 2005), pp. 66-128.

[5] This includes the archaic proscription of sentence adverbs, such as happily, sadly, etc., though I’m still uncomfortable starting a sentence with hopefully, e.g., “Hopefully, I’ll see you soon” (do I hope to see you soon, or will I see you soon while full of hope?).

[6] Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”, Poet’s Corner – Bookshelf [accessed 6 August 2010] (lines 179-180).