On the Preservation and Respect for the Rules of Grammar
© 2005 - 2007, R. W.C. Stevens
The reason for having rules of grammar in a language is to ensure that the ideas one person expresses are the same ideas that the recipient of the message receives. ‘Basic ideas go OK, “if u no what i mean.” ’ However, when one moves beyond simple ideas and has instead complex concepts to communicate, there comes a greater need for well parsed and structured sentences in which to convey these ideas clearly (even when they can not be communicated concisely). The rules of the language mean that the words carry with them information. (Some of the information is encoded in the selection of verb, noun, adjective, or whatever. Some of the information is encoded in the shade of meaning the word has taken on.) The listener can then parse the well crafted communication — reverse engineer it, if you will — and thus receive the message. When the rules of the language are abused or ignored, the content becomes garbled and the recipient is left uncertain of the true and proper meaning of the communication — which is just fine for talking heads and wasting time; but not the object of true communication.
Actually, it is not “just fine.” There are problems with not following the rules of language. In the short term it causes waste: Waste when additional discourse is needed to make clarification; Waste when misinterpretation causes mistakes which must then be corrected. In the long term, an abuse may become common, and then become the norm. Later, it can be the base for a new rule, with a resultant slow drift in the language. This is not benign, as it may at first seem. The problem with a slow drift is in its effect on the historical accumulation of worthwhile communications. After a significant accumulation of small drifts, older texts can become incomprehensible until translated into the current ‘New-Speak’.
Thus to allow the drift of rules is to condone, aid and abet the deprivation of future generations from access to the communications of our elders. This is not only insulting to our learned elders, but is also disrespectful towards future generations who should be able to build upon the resources they have been left.
… but only because the meaning of the sentence is not what the speaker meant.
|These examples are based on real mistakes.|
|What was Said:||I will lay down on the bed.|
|What was Meant:||I will lie down on the bed.|
|Comments on the Mistake:||To lie is an intransitive verb, and takes no object. To lay is transitive, and needs an object. ‘Down’ can be a noun [soft feathers], and therefore must be the object of the verb ‘to lay’.|
|Pedantic interpretation of what was said
[being very different from what was meant]:
|I will lay [a goose] down [quilt] on the bed.|
|What was Said:||My brother kindly offered to drive my mother and I to visit the hospital.|
|What was Meant:||My brother kindly offered to drive my mother and me to visit the hospital.|
|Comments:||‘I’ is subject, and needs a verb. Although there is no specifically stated verb, this can be a construction in parallel with the first phrase; with the verb ‘offered’ being implied.|
|Interpretation:||My brother kindly offered to drive my mother, and I [kindly offered] to visit the hospital.|
|What was Said:||Who are you wanting to kill?|
|What was Meant:||Whom are you wanting to kill?|
|Comments:||Who is subject, in apposition to you. Whom would be objective case; object of the verb to kill.|
|Interpretation:||Who do you think you are?!!? You should not be wanting to kill someone.|
|What was Said:||Protesters threw balloons filled with paint, beer cans, and other projectiles.|
|What was Meant:||Protesters threw beer cans, balloons filled with paint, and other projectiles.|
|Comments:|| One may wonder, briefly: How does one fit a beer can into a balloon?
Obviously, the beer cans were not used to fill the balloons.
The cans and other projectiles were items, separate and apart, from the paint-filled balloons.
Although it is obvious, why should each and every reader be troubled, stumbling over the absurd thought?
It is the writer’s responsibility to be clear.
The writer who believes the time he saves by not editing is more valuable than the time collectively spent by each and every reader doing that editing for themselves may believe his audience is so small that the saving is trivial, or may be so self-centred as to not care about his readers.
|Interpretation:||Beer cans were stuffed into balloons! [Or, the writer does not care about the audience.]|
Click here to submit, for consideration, your favourite example.
|The following, perhaps, is not a mistake|
|What is Said:||[Over a grocery store check-out lane] … items or less.|
|What some allege as being Meant:||… items or fewer.|
|The Argument:||Grocery items come as discrete items, and so should be counted using integers.|
|Comments:||Since one might be buying a broken package, from the discount rack, it is therefore possible to have a non-integral number of items. So: One can indeed have less, as opposed to fewer, than a specific number of items.|
NOTE: Because of the popularity of the mistakes noted above, it is difficult to say the things listed in the ‘Interpretation’ sections!
Other vocalism comments are indexed here.
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