On “Good” Language Use

Language ‘mistakes’ should be blamed on the language more than the speaker.”

A while ago, I was reading a technical article. It was well-written and engaging. Then, I saw a line like the following:

We want to document programmer learnings while using this system.

I wasn’t bothered by this. So English wasn’t the first language of the author. The paper was perfectly understandable, and this minor mistake didn’t distract from the content. But it still got me thinking about why this was a mistake and what the author might have been thinking when he made it.

The author understood the verb – to learn, and understood gerunds – that adding ING to a verb can turn it into a noun. Therefore, he logically applied this process and made the result plural. The problem is, this didn’t quite work for the same reason that so many attempts to apply a rule in English don’t work. English is an inconsistent language.

Spelling errors are often the result of assuming consistency where there is none.”

Spelling is another area where mistakes arise from assuming consistency, and mistakes are are illustrative because even native speakers make them. For instance, I’ve seen some people misspell “neat” as “neet”. Now some people would ridicule those who make “obvious” spelling mistakes, and assume they are of low intelligence. But is this fair?

Once again, look at the nature of the mistake. The user saw a pattern – that EE makes a long ‘e’ sound, and generalized this to form a rule. This is an intelligent process, the result of logical thought. The problem? This logical thought was applied to an area that is illogical and inconsistent.

Spelling is pathological system.”

Spelling is a pathological system. In fact, the only way to start to tame spelling is to treat groups of letters and patterns as carriers of sound. To a certain extent, I was taught this in school, but this system didn’t go far enough. For instance, patterns like *TION making a “shun” sound, or *LE making an “ull” were not taught to me. What would the rule system look like if we not only embraced the multi-letter nature of sound carriers and looked at how words really are pronounced?

Well, this site has broken down spelling into 31 rules; but some of those rules are compound, so it’s more like 40+.

These rules are byzantine, probably still have exceptions, and I’d be surprised if they were complete.

Take the many possible ways one can spell the same sound, like in these rhyming words: bear, bare, hair. In each of these words, we have the same vowel sound, realized through EA, A*E an AI. Worse, these same letter groups can form different sounds in different contexts. For instance, EA can also make an “ee” sound, as in “near”.

This problem has been widely recognized, and has given rise to many movements in the past.”

That English spelling sucks should come as no surprise. This problem has been widely recognized and has given rise to many movements in the past, all falling under the banner of Spelling Reform.

Spelling reformers have attempted to simplify English spelling, but they have had very little success. Normally, I have nothing good to say about attempts to mandate “correct” language use, but with spelling reform, I’ll happily make an exception for one very simple reason: It tries to simplify spelling. Spelling reformers acknowledge the problems with English spelling and try to do something about it. I’m all for that.

Rather than ridicule people who make spelling errors, we should applaud them for their consistency.”

Whatever we think, people should spell correctly, because there is a negative perception associated with bad spelling, and negative perceptions can affect one’s social and economic prospects. 

However, we should not lose focus on the goals of education. Are we trying to get people to memorize ad hoc facts, or are we trying to develop their critical thinking skills and their abilities to find and generalize data? However, if we desensitize people to using ad hoc, illogical systems, we may weaken their critical faculties. Put bluntly, our language teaching might actually make people think worse! So maybe we should approach spelling as a necessary evil. Acknowledge it is a terrible system, but one we’re stuck with (for historic reasons).

Often, ‘mistakes’ are how a language gets simplified.”

You needn’t look far before you find someone complaining about how our language is going down the tubes. Maybe they’re complaining about slang, the relaxation of certain grammatical rules or the lack of formality in writing. The complainers will often make this seem like a symptom of a greater mental decline. Ironically, the opposite is true. Moving away from an inconsistent system to a more consistent  one shows a clarity of thought and the courage to stop following along like sheep. There is nothing intelligent about adherence to an inconsistent system that’s so broken that even native speakers have difficulty mastering it.

Furthermore, history shows that language evolves because of mistakes. Mistakes are often the intuitive application of rules in language, so when a mistake becomes enshrined as part of language use, the language has just become a bit more regular, a bit more logical, a bit more rule-based. Yes, people making mistakes are improving our language; they are the language innovators, and their contributions will be felt for far longer than the “correctors” of today.

English has changed dramatically. If you were to go back in time 1,000 years and try to speak to someone then, you’d be hard pressed to understand anything. Even texts from a few hundred years ago – like Shakespeare (who happily abused the language) – are difficult to understand for today’s readers.

And this change has been in the direction of simplification! For instance, studies have shown that verbs have become more regular over time:

Yes, English is evolving into a simpler direction and one day irregular verbs may just be a bad memory. That’s right, much of the “proper” language we use today was considered bad language in the past. And you bet there were probably people back then bemoaning the degeneration of their culture as people added -ED to the end of “laugh” to make the past tense (yes, laugh used to be irregular).

The greatest threat to our language is not people making mistakes, it’s people trying to enforce ‘proper language’.”

Language has evolved and it will continue to do so. Yet people who try to stop this evolution, who try to cling to outdated notions, or refuse to allow innovations can slow down this rate of improvement. They are the threat, and not the people making mistakes, inventing slang or neologisms. And often, the people trying to enforce ‘proper language’ are simply enforcing silly rules that make no sense.

Take the truly stupid rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition – a rule that few still take seriously. Why was that rule formed? Well, because you couldn’t do that in Latin! Yeah, let that sink in. They tried to prevent valid expressions in English because they were impossible in a DEAD LANGUAGE.

Language is a Tool. Those who fetishize the tool have missed the point and are likely misusing the tool.

Language is a tool for communication. As long as it allows successful communication, then it has been successfully used. This communication can be of many sorts, including the transmission of information, social status or group signalling.

Language is not a series of iron-clad rules that is forever fixed in time, or pre-ordained by some outside authority. Language is like a hammer. You use it to pound in nails. If you spend all your time encrusting it with rhinestones and criticizing people who are successfully using the hammer, then you are likely the problem.

One can see that language is about communication when one sees how it varies among different speech communities. A speech community is any group that uses language in a distinctive way to accomplish its communication needs. So for instance, teenage friends are a speech community who use a lot of lingo and pop culture references in their communication. Medical personnel are another speech community who use certain technical terms and grammatical forms. Office workers are a speech community that favors the passive form more often than the average person, and so on.

Language Success is about achieving your goals.”

And that ultimately is what language success is about. It’s about achieving your goals. We’re social creatures, and so achieving our goals often requires the cooperation of others, and this requires communication. Do I want money? I’ll need to find a job, which means talking to people, using language in prescribed ways depending on the field I want to work in, etc… Do I want love? Then I will need to use language forms in certain ways to get dates and develop and maintain relationships, and these language forms can even go as far as the tone of voice I use with my partner. What speech communities are we trying to achieve success within?

This is also where any justification for formal speech, spelling, etc… can be found. If the speech community values these things as signals of social standing, then being able to use these forms becomes a means of navigating within that community.

This also ties in with what I try to do with teaching English as a Second Language. Where I volunteer, we focus on student goals. Technical points of the language are taught as they arise naturally within the context of these goals. Ultimately, we’re giving our students the tools to have a better life.

And this is what we should all focus on.

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