Is There Such a Thing as 'Proper English'?

Fewer grammar is literally no skin off anyone’s cheek. 


A new essay in The Wall Street Journal by Oliver Kamm contends fo’ shizzle nope, there ain't no "proper English." I kid: Mr. Kamm wrote his piece in impeccable English. But his thesis is that it’s wrong to insist on standard English. “The grammatical rules invoked by pedants,” he claims, “aren’t real rules of grammar at all.”

What, then, are those misnamed “rules”? Mr. Kamm says they are — “at best”  mere “stylistic conventions.” So the injunction against double negatives is groundless: “I can’t get no satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones lyric, “makes complete grammatical sense.” What about split infinitives? Bring 'em on: English speakers should not be faulted if they opt to boldly go where their snooty ancestors haven’t gone before. Same for using “hopefully” as an adverb modifying a sentence. (Hopefully you will grasp that concept after finishing this sentence.) And there is no problem with saying “between you and I,” when the Grammar Nazis insist on “between you and me.”

Hang loose, English speakers! You’re in the clear as long as your use of the language is consistent with “general usage.” That means you don’t have Mr. Kamm’s blessing for saying “flimmergrintlock bejeebles” (don't Google that) when you are trying to order a chicken sandwich, because no one has ever heard of those terms. And you can be criticized for writing simply “Skippy oh man apocalypse throat” to inform your child’s first grade teacher of a peanut allergy.

On the other hand, go ahead and add a gratuitous apostrophe to “its” when you’re using it as a possessive pronoun, and feel free to subtract one from the contraction. Its no big deal, says Mr. Kamm. Everybody's doing it. Indulge in mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nu-cyu-lar,” George W. Bush style. Use “less” (rather than “fewer”) when you’re talking about items you can count. However many English speakers are still using “fewer” the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned way, there are less of them every day. And fewer grammar is no skin off anyone’s cheek. Literally.  

The point of using language precisely is not to alienate or to stigmatize. It is to communicate clearly and elegantly. Of course there is ample room for diverse “language games,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s terms, each with its own grammar and constitutive of its own culture. Every publication has its peculiarities and peccadillos, often enshrined in a style guide explaining exactly how writers should handle everything from titles to jargon to euphemisms. The Economist isn’t aiming to ostracize The New York Times when it calls the conflict from 1939-45 the “second world war” rather than “World War II.” By telling his readers which old-time "bogus" rules they "may" start breaking, Mr. Kamm is, in effect, developing his own sketch for a style guide. In that sense, he is no less of a pedant than anybody else. 

Mr. Kamm’s argument relies on what he seems to think is a clear distinction between “rules” and “conventions.” But there is no such bright line. All communities have norms governing how they communicate. Call them rules or call them conventions: you want to be understood by the people you are speaking to or writing for, and you want to be seen as hewing to shared linguistic norms. There are no “laws” of grammar whose violation will land you in jail. The grammar police do not carry billy clubs. But failing to “speak the language” of a community you want to thrive in, or wish to join, will get you nowhere fast. This is why Mr. Kamm’s declaration that “people should not be stigmatized for the way they speak” is so silly. His moralizing is either obvious or wrongheaded: No one should chastise a stranger on the subway for letting a participle dangle, true. But neither should a writing teacher let his students mangle semicolons or flub subject-verb agreement just because everybody's doing it wrong.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

 

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
popular

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less