22 June 2006

Correcting the Correctors

In this modern post-Lynne-Truss era, it has seemingly become fashionable to hold an élitist view of language. Everywhere we turn, we are being presented with a view of "right" and "wrong" ways to speak. From published authors such as the aforementioned Lynne Truss, and established TV figures like Julian Fellowes on Never Mind The Full Stops, through to innumerable websites and blogs, everyone sees fit to express their view of what really constitutes "proper" English. But how right are the people who call us poor misguided mortals "wrong"?

Without addressing the issue of whether there is such a thing as proper English (yet), I will look at some of these self-appointed authority figures and demonstrate the failings in their arguments.

Today, I'll pick an easy target -- an amateur site.

English Niggles state their gripe plainly:
The niggle is not with the English itself. The niggle is about the ease with which we, the English speaking public, make a complete mess of our own language.
Surely there is a problem with the language if it allows us to do this? However, that's a topic for another day. Today, let's just see if they can help us clean up this mess.

At present, the grammar section is headed Getting the right words in the right order and the first post reads thus:
Our son is nearly 12 and was recently diagnosed by a "proper" consultant with Neurological Dysfunction Disorder. The two sides of his brain don't work together properly, so his whole thinking process is compromised.

Poor consultant. I am amazed that he is continuing to work, despite him having the disorder.

Source: Page 66, Daily Mail, Friday 17 February 2006

Contributed by: Contributor 6

Are these words in the right order? The contributor clearly thinks that this should read Our son is nearly 12 and was recently diagnosed with Neurological Dysfunction Disorder by a "proper" consultant. This is, of course, the most natural syntactic arrangement. However, just because something is not presented in the most natural manner does not make it wrong. Indeed, we use reorderings every day in order to stress a point. By moving the phrase by a "proper" consultant beside the verb diagnose, the original speaker/writer has stressed that the credentials of the consultant who gave the diagnosis are central to the point that he or she is trying to make. Had a comma been inserted before and after by a consultant, I doubt that any complaint would have been made about word order. So is this a punctuation error? Did you understand the original text? I did. Had the phrase been put in commas, it may have been read as though it was in brackets -- not central to the argument. In that case, the emphasis gained by moving the phrase forward in the sentence could have been completely lost. Besides, this was probably spoken and a transcription will be missing all the intonational queues that help disambiguate language.

The sentence as stands is surely the quickest way to convey the intended meaning.

And another grammar one from English Niggles, this time featuring the wonders of the passive voice:
Prison Death Probe Begins

He was found hanging by a bedsheet and was pronounced dead in hospital

Clever bedsheet!

Source: Page 332, ITV Teletext, 21 January 2006

Contributed by: Contributor 6

There's nothing wrong with this, but dealing with the passive voice can be tricky, so let's put this into the active voice.
A warden found a prisoner hanging by a bedsheet
I doubt anyone objected to me inferring that it was a warden who found him. Why not? Because we could all work that out from the original. What we couldn't know without being told was whether he had used his belt, his shoelaces or a bedsheet. If the bedsheet follows the preposition "by" in the active, why shouldn't it in the passive? And if we can work out that it was a prison warden who found him, then we don't need him at all.

Last one for today:
When makers of adjustable therapeutic beds and reclining chairs, Willowbrook Ltd., refused to do anything about a recliner for his sister that hadn't been made to the right specification Alan Bowden threatened to sue.

Has anyone ever seen the right specification for making a sister?

Source: Back page, Which, January 2006

Now that's just silly. If it was the sister who hadn't been made properly... well, exactly, who; but in the original it says that. As that only applies to non-humans, we automatically associate it with the last inanimate object in the sentence -- the recliner.

All languages are to some level ambiguous, and English is no exception. With selective reading, we can twist the words of others any way we desire.

English niggles? Yes, I suppose it does.

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