Thursday, June 07, 2007

The written word

A rather excellent new blog has been brought to your humble Devil's attention, Belle-du-Jure (no, not that one). One post that grabbed my attention was on the subject of bad writing.
I am going to have a rant about one of my pet beefs: Bad writing.

I’m not talking about the odd typo – especially in the context of blogging/posting etc. God knows that I am as guilty as the next person of being less attentive to these details when communicating online. However, there are limits. I am sure I am not the only person that has started to read something (most likely on a blog) and found it to be so badly written that it just makes your eyes water.

I think that we all know the kind of thing that is being referred to; indeed, it seems to be a perennial gripe to those of us who try, to whatever extent, to craft our writing. Here, for example, is a post in a similar vein from The Longrider.
It is the writer’s responsibility to make every effort to ensure that his prose is legible and easily understood by the reader - it is not the reader’s responsibility to decipher writing that is misspelled, badly constructed and lacking in punctuation. That we frequently do is simply because poor use of English is far too prevalent for readers to become too pedantic. After all, we have a whole a generation that grew up without ever being introduced to the rules of grammar. I’d not read anything if I complained every time I came across badly written English. Having said that, if it is too bad I stop trying and subsequently ignore the poster, which is a pity as they may have something interesting to say.

Your humble Devil does not craft his posts as such; they are all first drafts, written as I think them. I will occasionally go back and remove typos and, on realising that I have used the same word more than once in close proximity, find a synonym but, generally, you are reading precisely what I am thinking (this, incidentally, is why some of my posts are so long: I construct my arguments as I write. It is also how I have time to write so much: writing as you think is very quick!).

Most of us in the political blogosphere are, I think, are aware of the impact of sloppy syntax: after all, we spend much of our time shifting through the weasel words of our politicians to find the truth, or realise what they are not saying. Many people are not so methodical, however, and this is in part due to the fact that grammar is no longer taught in schools (and has not been for some years). More importantly, it is not considered important in exams either.

I was on 18DS's Blogger TV on Monday and highlighted a post by Deogolwulf—possibly one of the very finest writers of what I call "classical English" on the web (or elsewhere)—on the purposeful desecration of our language.
There is no clearer sign of a widespread blight in culture than that language, a vital organ of intellectual and cultural life, is degraded. That it should be purposely degraded, furthermore, by those whom one might expect to be its guardians, is a sign of a yet greater disease. An illustration:
English Leadership Quarterly ran an article urging teachers to encourage intentional writing errors as “the only way to end [the English language’s] oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers.” The pro-error article, written by two professors at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, actually won an award from the quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. So you can now win awards for telling the young to write badly.

It is too much to hope that the principal vectors of this disease (or the professors of progressive education, as they prefer to be called) are capable of shame.

This is typical of the current thinking: instead of teaching all people to write English well, we should debase and mutilate our language—end the "oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers"—so that their pitiful excuse for writing may be accepted in the mainstream.

This is entirely wrong; whilst no language should be preserved in aspic and prevented from developing, spelling and grammar are essential to understanding and that, ultimately, is what language exists for.

For how can one communicate one's thoughts and inspire others if one cannot even convey one's basic meaning?


xoggoth said...

Needless to say I totally agree with those profs. To avoid the stupid feeling sidelined we should also bang our heads really hard on a brick wall at least four times a day or whenever we feel ourselves having an intelligent thought.

PS I cannot believe they were serious but I am probably being naive.

The Tin Drummer said...

Trust me, Xoggoth, it probably got an awful lot worse. Education academics are prone to spouting all sorts of PM bullshit while having one or two things that absolutely must be taught, no question, no exceptions....

Roger Thornhill said...

Trying not to appear as a Dave Spart (and also tempting the searchlight of doom upon my own output), but one wonders if this is intentional so as to dumb down and hobble coming generations so those ladder-kickers can condescend and patronise at will.

Rigpig said...

Most distressed Mr Devil, if ever a post called for the use of a few swear words, this was it.

Professors stating that people should be encouraged to make mistakes in English: fucktards.



Tomrat247 said...

The evolution of language is something that continually happens; look at the new words that enter the Oxford dictionary and the "extinction" of words that have left modern vocabulary. However, this is an ordered process brought about by refinement of base descriptors necessitated at one point; a colloquialism placing a new meaning to a phrase which we all collectively get, i.e. "away with the fairies" etc. Removing the barrier to effective grammar destroys the way we convey ANY information.
I was taught at a CoE state school in the 90s - Grammar was given at an estimate proportion of about 5% of the total english we were taught. The shortfall I made up at university writing science reports (where empecable grammar it is still enforced) and later temping as a medical secretary at the NHS.
It would seem that the marked drop in societies grasp of english is indicative in a decline in civilisation - look at the way the Mayan, Aztec and Egyptian empires went; anyone speak Hieroglyphic?

Anonymous said...

The quote, taken from Longrider's site, is in need of fisking:

"It is the writer’s responsibility to make every effort to ensure that his prose is legible and easily understood by the reader - it is not the reader’s responsibility to decipher writing that is misspelled, badly constructed and lacking in punctuation."

On the internet and in print, legibility is rarely a problem. Readability, however, can be and often is. The difference between 'legible' and 'readable' is important in an essay about careful English.

"That we frequently do is simply..."

This is poor English. If this construction must be persisted with, re-word as "That we frequently do so is simply..." However, "That we frequently have to guess at meaning is simply..." is better.

"... is simply because poor use of English is far too prevalent for readers to become too pedantic."

Pedantry does not retreat because instances of poor grammar advance. In fact, the opposite is true - as Longrider's piece perhaps proves.

"After all, we have a whole a generation that grew up without ever being introduced to the rules of grammar."

Who are "we"? Britons? Those of us in the Anglosphere? Internet users worldwide? Those older than a certain age or the generation referred to? Define "we" to avoid vagueness. Also, which generation is being referred to? How old is it now?

"I’d not read anything if I complained every time I came across badly written English."

I'm glad Longrider is no hypocrite.

"Having said that, if it is too bad I stop trying and subsequently ignore the poster, which is a pity as they may have something interesting to say."

This is a hanging or dangling participle. The classic example of this type of howler is "Crossing the road, the lorry ran him over". Was the lorry really crossing the road? If not, re-word as "Crossing the road, he was run over..." Similarly, in the sentence above, "it" did not "say that" - "I" did. Re-word as "Having said that, I stop trying if it is too bad..."

Beams, motes etc.


Longrider said...

Anonymous, there is the matter of style. Sometimes a less wordy approach my not be strictly correct, but the writing is more fluid. I don't claim perfection, I do, however, make an effort to be readable. Frankly, I wouldn't change the piece as it would become unnecessarily stilted if I followed your advice; so thanks and all that... Be pedantic by all means ;)

By "we" I mean Britons; if you read the piece in context - that of my blog - you would realise how old I am and to which generation I refer. Explaining everything afresh for each article would rapidly become tedious.

I have no experience of American education - nor elsewhere for that matter, so again, if read in context you would realise that my comments refer to Britain. I rarely write about the USA or the rest of the Anglosphere.

Anonymous said...

Dear Longrider

I don't think my hypothetical emendations would make that paragraph clunky. Besides, they would rescue it from the very crimes it rails against.

I'm glad you've taken on board the difference between 'legible' and 'readable'. You were, after all, writing about decent English.

If you now learn what constitutes a dangling participle my time won't have been wasted (and people will no longer smile when you lecture about proper usage).

Your full piece doesn't make plain your age or location so I shall have to continue to guess that "a whole generation" refers to those now 16-25, and "we" to those of us on this island who are older. But why should I, the reader, have to guess?

Truss is amusing but not without her own faults. (No, I am not the author.)

Enjoy the motorbikes.


Longrider said...

Of course Truss is not perfect. I am not perfect. Neither I nor Truss claim to be. If you have the time and inclination, you can find fault with anyone's writing - it all depends on just how pedantic you want to get.

The two pieces I complained about in my article were dire extremes following a run of similar examples. The first had no structure whatsoever. All that this person's detractors were asking was that he make an effort to punctuate, capitalise and spell. That said, the quoted example was readable - it just took effort on the part of the reader, which is more than could be said for the second example; quoted by Truss. Meaning here was ambiguous to the point where the reader is unable to discern what the writer wanted to convey.

Neither I nor Truss, nor, I suspect DK here, are too worried about the strict letter of grammatical rule. As pointed out by a previous commenter, language changes and as it does, some of those rules become relaxed or dropped completely. The split infinitive springs to mind. So, too, the time when a colleage criticised me for starting a sentence with "and". Grammatically incorrect? Yes. Acceptable in modern usage? Yes. Sometimes style overrides strict grammar. But, then, I wasn't asking for strict grammatical correctness. I was asking people to make some effort to be understood. Providing the sentence scans (and is read in context) then I am happy enough. Certainly I don't get picky with poor use of apostrophes when reading a piece even though they do smack me in the eye, nor would I castigate the author because they used "their" instead of "they're" or "there".

As for guessing, well, that really is your choice. There is enough information on my site to get background information. But (ooh a sentence starting with a conjunction, how awful) even if not, grammar ceased to be taught in British state schools some time in the late nineteen sixties when I was in primary school. Strictly speaking, if we are to be mathematically pedantic, it is two and a half generations that have been failed by our education system in this area. But, then, I'm not that pedantic.

Deogolwulf said...

I thank you for your kind words, DK.

Chuck Unsworth said...

I'm sorry, I find the comments by 'Anonymous' neither instructive nor entertaining.

In short, he or she is profoundly, crashingly, pompous, hideously self-indulgent and, infinitely worse, boring in the extreme.

Do we really have to wade through this pile of excrement in a vain attempt to find a single nugget of common sense or even humour?

Longrider said...

Chuck, rather than fill up DK's comments with a fully considered reply, I fisked the fisker over at my place. My conclusions are similar to yours; picky, pompous, patronising and pedantic.