Say It Like You Mean It

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This is post one of two, and it is all about why the things you say are almost never wrong, grammatically. They may be ill-advised, on occasion. But not wrong. The post following this will deal with the things you write, and particularly the things you write in marketing.

It’s a fairly safe bet that you’ve had your language questioned and corrected at some point, as if there are blanket rules that inform how we should speak and write. ‘As if there are?!’ I hear you cry.

Well, there aren’t. Anyone who tells you there are is either sorely misinformed, or having you on.

Let me explain by first looking at some common examples…

…Like when you say “Me and Egbert are going to the courthouse to file a name change. Wanna come?” and some smart Alec tells you “It’s “Egbert and I are going to the courthouse, actually”.

Or when you’re told to use 'who' instead of 'that' in sentences like ‘Esmerelda is someone that really likes to keep a straw doll handy. And a bag of pins.’

Come to that, when you’re told to stop using ‘like’ all the time. Because it’s, like, so dumb (in this case ‘like’ is used as a filler - a substitute for ‘er’ and ‘um’, or a simple hesitation. If filling - and hesitating - was improper, we’d all have a hard time expressing ourselves).

None of the above are ‘wrong’. When it comes to language, there is no right and wrong. There is only context.

I should clarify. The reason you are told it is wrong is because most people have a fundamental misunderstanding of language. And that’s understandable.

Language is such a personal thing. It’s tied up in who we are, our status, our prestige; it’s one of the key ways people form their impressions of us, and it allows us (humans) to define ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, create a sense of belonging, boost self-esteem, or even claim power or control over a particular environment. You can look at literally every aspect of our lives for examples of this, but one you’re probably all familiar with is picking up the language of a new social group, whether it’s a new set of friends, a group associated with a new pastime or a new job.

Initially you’ll feel like you’re on shaky ground. You may even secretly scoff at some of the new lingo you’re hearing. But sooner or later you’ll pick up and start using - whether consciously or otherwise - the acronyms, slang and speech patterns of those around you. Hence, you’ll be familiar with the idea of ‘tweeting’ a ‘troll’ about his tasteless and offensive use of ‘memes’ with regards to ‘#metoo’. Twenty years ago, this would have been utter gibberish. All of this language is now acceptable in both social interactions and formal discourse - in news and politics, for example.

The reason it’s so ingrained in us to consider language through the scope of correctness is because from an early age it’s been drilled into us to speak in a particular way. Children go through a well-documented process in their acquisition of language and make similar errors the world over, no matter what language they learn. Parents correct them, for obvious reasons - e.g. when your kid sees their first cow (imagine that. Your first cow.) and says ‘dog’ because a dog is the only four-legged animal they’ve yet seen in the flesh, you want to correct them, because not being able to distinguish between a cow and a dog is stupid.

Another one you might recognize is being called ‘Daddy’ when you’re not the kid’s Dad. You want to correct this because it could raise awkward questions. This error is called ‘over-generalization’.

It follows, naturally, that we continue to correct perceived errors of those we believe to be ‘breaking the rules’.

 But the point of language is to express meaning, and have your audience understand that meaning in order to facilitate communication. You talk, they understand, they respond, you understand. It’s beautiful.

Correcting your child on what is a dog and and what is a cow, or who is Daddy and who is (probably) not Daddy is important because you want them to be able to communicate effectively.

Correcting somebody - or being corrected - on a grammatical ‘rule’ is not important, unless it will cause problems in your relationship with that person. In which case, you have other issues to work through.

When ‘Me and Egbert’ went to the park, did you understand the sentence? Do you take any more understanding from the ‘correct’ formulation of ‘Egbert and I went to the park’? What does the latter express that the former doesn’t? The same goes for Esmerelda. If we’re going to acquiesce to ‘proper’ (or prescriptive - I’ll get into this in a later post) grammar, she should be someone ‘who’ likes to keep a straw doll handy. She’s a person, not an object. Makes sense. Except, if what we’re really interested in is achieving communication successfully, it really doesn’t matter a gnat’s crotchet.

In social situations and informal settings with friends and family, you should never casually submit to being corrected in this way, as if the other person's authority over language is greater than yours. Accept clarification, sure. But never be corrected.

Of course, there are times when it does matter. In a job interview or some other formal setting you need to maintain your prestige intact, and represent yourself as being someone who is capable of using language appropriate to the ‘in’ group.

And this is the crux of the problem. People the world over confuse propriety with context, to the point where they get genuinely upset. Like this quote on Grammar Girl’s website on the issue of ‘who’ vs ‘that’. The post starts with a question from a site user called Lesley:

My pet peeve is who versus that, as in “You know Bob, he's the guy that sold me my car.” It drives me nuts. Or am I mistaken and it's just become part of the new English verbiage in the evolution of the language?

Lesley positions herself immediately as being annoyed. It’s her ‘pet peeve’. It ‘drives her nuts’. And I can’t help but wonder why.

Are you mistaken in what, Lesley? Being annoyed? No. You’re mad as a box of frogs, but you can’t be mistaken in being annoyed. In believing this is incorrect, on the other hand, you are absolutely mistaken. To illustrate my point, I’d answer Lesley’s question with another question. Or perhaps a series of them.

Were you annoyed because the person talking about Bob - let’s call him Norris - was expressing this in front of an insufferably pedantic CEO, with whom it is important to adopt formal conventions at all times?

Did Norris’s use of ‘that’ over ‘who’ fundamentally change your understanding of the sentence, causing you to strip naked and smear jam all over your torso?

Or was this, perhaps, said in informal conversation between yourself and Norris in which the only purpose was to exchange gossipy information, to recommend Bob for a task, or engage in ‘phatic’ talk, i.e. maintain familiar social bonds? 

In the first instance, Norris represented himself poorly in front of somebody of high prestige in a situation where his language-use mattered, whether we agree with the CEO or not. In the second, communication was poorly achieved, though arguably the fault lay with Lesley rather than Norris.

In the third, most likely option - how can we possibly say that it was ‘wrong’? Essentially, you’re saying Norris was wrong to use language as it spontaneously occurred to him in natural speech. Which means all spontaneous, conversational language is wrong. All the time.

So next time someone corrects your speech with haughty indignation, you might politely ask them if they would like a jar of jam and a spatula. If that doesn’t clarify things, nothing will.