It’s been too long since I wrote to you. I apologize. Lots of the normal and delicious detritus of everyday life, combined with the singularly separate and complementary weight of “original thought,” has delayed me from my typical task of writing to you.
I write now, somewhat quixotically, to solve a variety of problems at once. Luckily, Stephen Fry made a succinct contribution that clarifies at least a portion of my frazzled mindstream.
This video makes three points that I agree with, and draws an inference I disagree with quite strongly.
Language, what is it? What should it be? The answer to the first question is ambiguous precisely (in my mind) because language that is clearly defined is less useful than one that is somewhat—per se and exactly, at least—undefinable. The second one is pointless beyond the tautological answer “something used to communicate,” which presumes (fairly) that both speaker and listener have mutual knowledge of (at least most of) what the language “means.”
So, what do I agree with? One, language evolves—not only does the world change, but expectations about what others think “we’re talking about” do as well—so there’s no reason to suppose for any reason other than the natural human desire for certainty that language (read: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.) should or is fixed in any sense.
Second, correcting others’ grammar is obtuse. There’s a game theory point here: if you can correct the speaker’s grammar with anything approaching the requisite level of certainty for seizing such a teachable moment, you know what they mean to say.
I will set aside the question of “forum/medium” of the language that is being corrected. Clearly, language that is deployed in an unambiguously colloquial/time-sensitive setting (facebook, twitter, when one needs to go to the bathroom) is properly thought of as, at best, an approximation of what the speaker would deploy in a setting where it was fair to presume that all parties should agree that language matters.
This brings me to the third point I agree with. Fry makes another game theory point: when the expectation by the listener is that language should matter, then, well…to be blunt…it matters. Pushing this back and getting “game theoretic-plus” for a second, when the listener thinks that a sincere speaker thinks that the listener is likely to think that language matters and the listener has similar preferences to “the common listener,” then language matters.
Where I disagree is the (perhaps misinferred) implication that caring about the rules of language is a simple instantiation of pedantry. Hell, I write in a calculatedly abstruse, enigmatic, and pedantic fashion. I say calculatedly because I think words matter in a way that many more even-keeled individuals do not. When I say that, though, it should be inferred that “matter” is properly interpreted by me as shorthand for “matter to me.” In a nutshell, Fry can appropriately say, with me cheering alongside, that your language should not fit my constraints. But, let’s be clear, I like word candy. And, even less surprisingly, I like reading what I wrote…over and over and over. Conclusion? Don’t confuse caring about language with pedantry unless you are comfortable with equating pedantry with, ahem, “giving a shit.” At the same time, any good (classical) liberal has to accept that the penumbras that one chooses to focus on need not attract anyone else’s gaze.
In other words, Fry is right: it is bad form to correct others’ grammer/syntax/vocabulary when the meaning is clear, but… language matters. If you have a point to make that language constrains, well, fuck language. But, let’s be honest…this is pretty rare, so—if in doubt, honor language as best you can…and don’t be a douche correcting others’ language.
Hopefully I won’t be gone as long between this and the next post as I was between the previous post and this, but just in case, I leave you with this very apropos St. Louis shout-out.