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Thursday, February 28, 2013

About Language

For those of you who may wonder why grammar matters to me, and for those of you who may have missed my comment on a Facebook post, I'd like to attempt to explain my thinking (not that it's ever really "explainable," I suppose, but I'll try).

First of all, there's not really a "good" or "bad" grammar. We all speak varieties of  English called dialects.   Dialects contain differences in pronunciation, idioms, vocabulary, grammar and usage.  They most often reflect the parents' speaking, or can be from a region (New England, Southern, Australian, etc.), a locale (city as opposed to rural), ethnic (containing idioms and syntax from another language), or by education (the more schooling a person has, the more exposure to different bodies of knowledge which are often reflected in speech).

There are two types of English -- Standard and Nonstandard English.  Standard English is grammatically correct and divided into two types -- Formal and Informal. 

Formal Standard English is more stately and used for serious essays, writing research papers, and addresses on serious or solemn occasions, and the language is, therefore,  more "formal" in the sense that contractions are rarely used, slang never used, sentences tend to be longer, and the vocabulary is  more formal than what is often used as part of ordinary conversations.  It almost always is written.

Here's an example of Formal English used by John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961:

...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty...And so my fellow Americans:  ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

...Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.  With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

Informal Standard English is the language knowledgeable use most of the time. Informal English is the language used in newspapers, magazines, most books, business letters, and talks for a general audience.  Although grammatically correct, Informal English is not as rigid as Formal English.  Sentences sound like everyday conversation and are a mixture of long and short patterns.  Contractions are used, and slang is used occasionally.  Words are more simple and reflect ordinary conversation.

Following is an example of Informal English from Speech Can Change Your Life by Dorothy Sarnoff:

If you enjoy shaking hands, take the initiative.  Formerly the man was supposed to wait for the woman to offer her hand, but that rule went out with the one-horse shay.

But know when to stop.  I have seen two people shaking hands on and on, neither knowing how to let go.  Their problems was like that of the two pedestrians, approaching each other, who keep side stepping in the same direction until they finally bump into each other.  

Don't be a knuckle crusher, and don't go to the other extreme, extending your hand like a limp mackerel.  Instead, give the other hand a light pressure or squeeze, a sort of hand-hug.  Let your hand, as well as your eyes and your voice, register, "I'm glad to meet you."

Nonstandard English refers to variations in English that are not grammatically correct and best avoided in all but the most casual writing or speaking.  Sometimes writers will use Nonstandard English in a novel or short story to reflect the dialect of particular characters.

In John Steinbeck's acclaimed novel, Grapes of Wrath, he records the thoughts and speech of the Joad family, victims of the Depression in the 1930's:

Tom slowly made a cigarette, and inspected it and lighted it.  He took off his ruined cap and wiped his forehead.  "I got an idear," he said.  "Maybe nobody gonna like it, but here she is:  The nearer to California our folks get, the quicker they's gonna be money rollin' in.  Now this here car'll go twicet as fast as that truck.  Now here's my idea.  You take out some a that stuff in the truck, an' then all you folks but me an' the preacher get in an' move on.  Me an' Casy'll stop here an' fix this here car an' then we drive on, day an' night, an' we'll catch up, or if we don't meet on the road, you'll be a-workin' anyways.  An' if you break down, why jus' camp 'longside the road till we come.  You can't be no worse off, an' if you get through, why you'll be a-workin', an' stuff'll be easy.  Casy can give me a lif' with this here car, an' we'll come a-sailin'."

 Students are encouraged to learn Standard English.  Why you may ask?  It is the most generally accepted form of the language spoken and written in this country.  It is used in mass communication, from newscasters and disc jockeys, to movie and television personalities, as well as the programs, films, and plays in which they perform.  It is the language of newspapers and magazines, and of most books and journals.  Standard English is the spoken and written language of the business world, as well as the medical and technological fields, and the language of politics and politicians.

What's important is knowing when to use which type of English. If you use Nonstandard English at home with your family, you need to know, for example, you should use Standard English when interviewing for a job; Nonstandard English is not acceptable and considered inappropriate in the business world.  The language you use conveys to a listener more than just the ideas you are expressing.  It often implies, sometimes unjustly, the extent of you general education and your general sophistication.  And yes, which type of language you use could make a difference whether or not you get a particular job.  Most employers want their employees to exude competence rather than coming off as uneducated, incompetent dolts. 

If Standard English does not come easily to you, learn rules of usage and practice so you can develop your ability to use Standard English with ease. 

On a more personal level, certain grammar errors make me cringe.  In addition to people writing "alot," or saying "I've went through some tough times, "the other one that drives me wild is "Me and my friends..." -- I hear even actors in interviews say this. It's appalling. I know I should just smile and accept grammatically incorrect language as a way of life, like everyone else seemingly does, but we, as Americans, look like imbeciles who can't even master the basics. They teach the "me" thing in elementary school, for crying out loud!


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  2. I was enjoying this until... I don't have too many bees in my bonnet as far as grammar is concerned. Our language is wonderfully flexible and constantly on the move and that is part of what makes it such a joy to use and, yes, play with. So although I'm fairly relaxed about other people's use of English, I prefer to be reasonably accurate without being an unbending tree. But along with apostrophecide, I do have another real problem. Two things I do remember learning at my mother's knee were: we only have one home in the Universe; proper nouns take capital letters. My home is called Earth; it is a small planet, but an important one as far as I'm concerned and I'm sure that most upright apes reading this will agree with me. When referring to our planet, Earth, we are using a proper noun, just as we would be if we were referring to Jupiter, or something of much less importance like the Empire State Building. So why, why, why is it becoming commonplace to refer to our planet as earth? I refer, of course to the last line of Kennedy's inaugural address quoted above. I'm aware that there is, unaccountably, variation in policy on this. But why? We would never think of doing that to Mars, unless we're referring to a chocolate confection? What are your thoughts, Doc?

    1. I agree completely with your comments. "Earth" is the name of a particular planet, and therefore, in my opinion, should be capitalized according to the rule which states, "Capitalize proper nouns and adjectives."

      However, when referring to the "fragmental material composing part of the surface of the globe; esp: cultivable soil," in my Webster's, then "earth" is acceptable as it's not a proper noun. Also in that dictionary, it is marked -- "often cap: the planet on which we live...," but I do find an explanation for this seemingly illogical irreverence in Warriner's English Grammar and Composition in an extended note:

      An opposite process, by which proper nouns and adjectives lose their initial capital letter, goes on constantly as English grows and changes. Over a long period of time, a proper noun or a word derived from it may acquire a special meaning and become part of the common vocabulary.

      Examples sandwich from fourth Earl of Sandwich
      tuxedo from a country club at Tuxedo Park, New York
      china from China

      The change from a capital letter to a small letter does not take place all at once. In the English of our own time, many words are apparently undergoing such a change, and in these words either a capital or a small letter is acceptable -- thus, india (or India) rubber, turkish (or Turkish) towel, etc. Whenever you are in doubt, consult your dictionary. (Yeah, I know I should have indented this long quote 5 spaces, but my e-mail client is a grump and does not cooperate with me or even Microsoft Word! Please forgive me...and my Thunderbird my son installed for me.) (I also find it humorous "india" and "turkish" in the typing above are both underlined as grammatically incorrect because they are not capitalized! Ha!)

      So, going back to your original question, yes, I think Earth (the planet) should always be capitalized. It is a proper noun. Your mother is a wise woman.

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