Saturday, April 02, 2011

Dumb's the word

Fiddling while Rome burns, Kodakotype by Pants

In the last week or so, three speakers on radio and television have informed me that they were 'in agreeance' with something or other. Two were professional presenters and one was the spokesperson for a big organisation. Let us be completely clear, 'agreeance' is no more a word than 'annoyment' is a word (although it should be - the more words we have to express the state of being pissed-off we have at our disposal the better, in my view). So, what is going on when people who talk for a living are unfamiliar with the most common of expressions?

I know I'm not the only person to observe that the linguistic skills of the general population are deteriorating. I think it's true in all Anglophone countries. You're probably as tired of reading about it as I am of complaining about it. On the face of it you could say, so what? If you can roughly decipher meaning from a jumble of malapropisms, non sequiturs and neologisms, job done innit? Can we move on to cracking the global energy crisis now, please.

I don't think so. When people can't express themselves and be understood by others, they get frustrated. Frustration with being misunderstood can quickly turn to anger. Believe me, I know all about this, because I am very often on the receiving end of other people's failures to comprehend what I'm trying to get across to them. And it certainly does make me angry. And anger doesn't get anyone very far in a discussion. You need focus and good comprehension skills for that. And let me ask you this - if your boss claimed to be 'in agreeance' with your views, would you not think you were deserving of a better job? Perhaps your boss's job?

The first casualty of speech laxity is that no one you ever have to deal with feels obliged to listen carefully to what you are telling them. Neither do they expect perspicuity from the fullness of a sentence. That would be far too simple. Instead, they scan your conversation for 'key words' and put them together in whatever order best suits their own purpose. So, instead of both of you walking away from the encounter with a clear understanding of each other's opinions and wishes, the meeting turns into the opening salvo of a long email war about the substance of the 'agreeance'.

Politicians and others who are in the position of having to make public statements where the consequences may rebound on them in unpleasant and unforeseen ways, have learned that vague equals non-binding. It's much easier to slip out of a poorly formed fragment of a statement than it is to retract an unequivocal commitment. So now they routinely use the tactic with that express purpose, even if they do genuinely hold convictions and actually can speak with clarity. In the days when poor language skills were not tolerated in the public domain, this course would not have been available to them.

I find the disintegration of the language to be both progressive and cumulative. I have long believed that my own precision with the language is being compromised by the constant bombardment of bad grammar and incorrect spelling. I blame twenty-five years of riding around on the top deck of London buses and subliminally absorbing greasy-spoon menuese - lassunya anyone? I now have to check regularly the spelling of words I do know but not with the confidence I once took for granted. I can no longer count on the reinforcement of that knowledge coming automatically to me via reading.

I have recent experience of attending an institute of further education. I would describe its general written language standard as sub-literate. And the worst thing about that? The teachers wallowed in their own ignorance. They thought themselves far too arty and alternative to bother with such trifles as proper English. I'm just old fashioned enough to think that an educational institution has a duty of care to maintain a basic standard of literacy, much like a cake shop is obliged to stock cakes.

There is a particular example that will always fill me with contempt for their arrogance. I know I've mentioned this one before, but it seems to me a particularly pertinent case in point. At the very beginning of my art course, I received a handout entitled 'Complimentary Colours'. I immediately and diplomatically pointed out to the teacher that 'complimentary' was incorrectly spelt. It should be complementary. Her response? 'Oh, Spellchecker should have picked that up.' 'Ah, no,' says I, 'two different words: two different meanings.' She looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. Further handouts contained no correction. 'Complimentary' colours remained with us, presumably to give themselves away for free and tell us now nice we look today.

Perhaps you can determine whether or not incorrectly applied homophones require revision using your own self-styled value system. You could base your decision on how similar to the actual word you want to use the one you have used looks and whether or not you think it's that important to bother in the first place. Perhaps you can write a wrong, or indeed right a song and tell which witch is which with a blindfold on. But isn't that all a bit too hard, not to mention not especially egalitarian? Wouldn't it be easier and fairer to stick with the one simple rule and one indisputable source of verification - the dictionary - that have served us well for centuries?

One of the great misconceptions of our time is that simplification and casualisation of the language is a gesture of inclusivity. Wrong. It has not only made it possible for people with power to manipulate meaning with liberal use of obfuscation, it has robbed the people without power of the tools to effectively challenge false and absurd claims. Any politician or belligerent capitalist can flannel past a question from the current gormless breed of journalist by stringing together a few positive sounding 'key words' and trailing off with a defiant 'yeah.' Most of the time, they can get away with avoiding verbs altogether. Verbs are, after all 'doing' words. Wouldn't want to raise public expectation with any of those now, would we? And, they can freely misconstrue any counterargument put to them without fear of being called out on it.

Recently, I heard on the radio a candidate for an approaching state government election talking about what appeared to be quite a serious problem at railway stations. She said,

'Station staff have been stripped, which impacts on safety.'

I'll bet it does. Do you want idiots like this legislating on your behalf?

Roughly half the people I know learned English as an additional language. Rarely do they make mistakes in either written or spoken English. And if they do, they not only appreciate being corrected, they don't make that mistake again. It seems to me that learning English as a 'subject' rather than as a laborious task undertaken to reach the minimum requirements necessary to enable you to buy stuff, gives people an appreciation of the beauty and versatility inherent in its complexity.

It may seem pedantic to quibble about sloppy use of prepositions. But I am going to go there for two reasons. It is not difficult to learn the correct way and the correct way contains a logic that we must not lose from our language. The particular example I have in mind is one of the most regularly heard mistakes. It is far more common now to hear 'different to' or 'different than' in the vernacular. The correct assignation in this series is,

the same as
similar to
different from

Prepositions used to complement an adjective or adverb are supposed to relate in a logical way. They should 'agree'. 'From' signifies travelling away. 'To' denotes travelling towards. Why would I want to use 'different to'? It's an internal contradiction. And as for 'different than', why can't I use 'different with' or 'different for' or 'different against? As with the homophone example, who decides which variant is meaningful? Some thick art teacher in an Australian country town? Isn't it easier for us all to learn the right way to start with? It seems a nonsense to me to muddle through with having to guess what people are on about when we all have the elements necessary for complete clarity at our disposal. Plasticine comes in a huge range of vibrant colours. If you mix them together indiscriminately, you get a dull grey. It's the same with language.

I refuse to accept that this is a Luddite view. I am not opposed to the language growing and changing organically. I just don't want to wake up one morning to discover my mother tongue has turned into Jabberwocky. The addition of a new word should not result in the redundancy of twenty others. I'm also not theoretically opposed to some rationalisation, provided there is no attendant loss of dexterity. Here's an example of the mess you can end up with if you simply chuck a familiar colloquialism at a sentence without considering its individual meaning. I recently read in a British daily newspaper that the Australian zookeeper Steve Irwin had,

'died at the hands of a stingray.'

Stingrays have hands now? Interesting. What did it do - strangle him? Mow him down with an AK47? Feed him arsenic from a silver chalice? Admittedly, this crudity was in The Daily Mail but let us not forget that this nonsense was written by a person with the job title 'Journalist' and, very likely, a tertiary qualification.

A year or two ago, I wrote with some glee about Tesco customers who harangued the UK supermarket giant to the point where it capitulated to public pressure and rephrased its 'Ten items or less' checkout sign. I frankly don't care if the word 'fewer' disappears from the English language because individuals choose to stop using it. This will almost certainly happen because no one likes it enough to protect it. It's arguable that separate determiners are not really necessary to distinguish quantities that can be expressed as integers from those that can't. I guess I can get used to the thought of having 'less' apples today than I had yesterday. It might not sound so wrong in a few year's time.

Tesco, however, is positively Pulitzer compared to our supermarket here in Larrikin's End where checkout signage informs the customer that,

'Our checkouts are plastic bag free when you purchase three items or less.'

I've long since abandoned the expectation that hyphens should appear to lend sense to a sentence, especially in supermarket signage. And don't get me started on the abuse of the apostrophe which seems to have been relegated to the sole function of separating syllables in celebrity names, (Mo'nique, Des'ree). In any case, these are minor misdemeanours compared to the homicidal act that is the nonsense sentence. I did, in fact, purchase exactly three items from the Larrikin's End Lazymart yesterday and the plastic bags did not miraculously vanish as a consequence.

We want to be a little more careful about wandering too close to the thin end of the wedge when it comes to dispensing with our options for describing quantities. It was once a reporting convention to round up casualty figures if the exact number wasn't known and a bulletin was imminent. So, you'd hear reporters in disaster zones say something like, 'more than a hundred people were killed in ...' You understood that that meant 'on the information we have to hand at this very moment, we think it's about a hundred and maybe a few more.' It was an acceptable compromise to sacrifice absolute accuracy given an intractable deadline and the undoubted public interest in this kind of event. Now, you hear reporters using that locution for what would appear to be exact numbers. It's not uncommon to hear something like, 'more than six people were killed in ...' What is 'more than six'? Seven, eight, 4.3 billion? I recently heard a bulletin on our broadcaster of record, ABC Radio National, begin with the words, 'more than 171 people...' And, this morning I read a report on housing 'issues' informing me that 'forty per cent of households are made up of two people or less.' What does less than two people mean?

You'll know the expression, 'the price of freedom is eternal vigilance'. I don't think it's an overreaction to apply it to the preservation of language as it's the only tool most of us will ever have with which to challenge oppressors. It is also the only weapon that cannot be taken from us once we have it. There are some not very nice people out there who can and do benefit from our diminishing collective ability to fight bogus assertions with sound logic and verbal integrity. The pen might once have been considered mightier than the sword but the words it has previously wielded so deftly are now well on the way to acquiring the status of a condiment.

It really doesn't have to be this way. Let's solve the problem now, while there are still enough of us alive who can remember how the language is supposed to work. Schools need to get themselves back in the business of handing down the heritage of knowledge instead of doing whatever it is they do now, which I presume is something akin to what happens in a car factory. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me, 'let's not reinvent the wheel', I'd be able to buy a very big block of Parmesan cheese. Yet, reinvention of a perfectly adequate wheel is exactly what is happening to our language. A lexicon that has been honed to a high level of sophistication over many centuries and is beloved by everyone except its native speakers is being rapidly deconstructed by the most brutish amateurs amongst us. Let's not allow this.

Can I get general agreeance on this proposition? If not, I'll have no recourse but to experience extreme annoyment.

PS. It goes without saying that any post I write about grammar and spelling will contain some errors. Naturally, I will check it a dozen times. But, one or two will slip through to remind me that I am far more human than I care to admit.