Saturday, June 17, 2006

Can you make yourself understood?

A language is never in a state of fixation, but is always changing; we are
not looking at a lantern-slide but at a moving picture.
- Andrew Lloyd James, linguist

Most of us think of language, at least our mother language, as something as easy as eating a favourite dessert. It's actually more like trying to wrestle a giant amorphous blob into a teacup.

The reason? A language is so huge and changes so much that each person has only one view of it. And that view differs from the view that many others have of the same language.

Language changes so fast (and English is expanding so rapidly) that anyone who believes he or she has mastered the language is a fool because they have only mastered what the language was like in the past.

The French tried to coral their language into a set of rules with the Academie Francaise. They failed, even in France. Citizens of France speak with several different dialects (each with its own vernacular), and none of them is like that of the Parisians.

The reason we have so many problems with language is that too many of us think of language in terms of rules, notably rules of grammar and spelling. The first English, known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, appeared a millennium ago, with Middle English arriving during the Renaissance. Yet English had no codified rules for grammar or spelling until the middle of the 19th century, when all children were made to attend school. Lacking teaching resources, some authoritarian education leaders decided to formulate rules that gave teachers something to teach.

It's hard to find a rule of grammar that hasn't been broken liberally in modern English by the greatest writers. Or a rule of spelling that has not been broken by US retailers.

Focussing on rules of language misses the whole point of language, which is communication. Those with the best command of grammar rules and spelling tend to be so boring as writers that few want to enjoy what they have written.

We have some style guides, such as the Chicago Style Manual or the AP Manual, but they change yearly with how readers speak and write. Style guides serve publishers better than anyone else because they allow one style to be used for a newspaper or book published by one publisher for a particular period of time.

I would not like to make the point that following style guides is wrong. Rather I would stress that the message you want to communicate may be lost if you can't convey it in the language that readers want to read. Readers don't care much about rules. They care about the message.

Have style guides, with their restrictions and conventions, caused readership of books to have dropped drastically over the past two decades? I doubt it. People read what they want to read. If what they want to read is not in books, then they read something else.

The "secret" of writing is for the writer to speak to the mind of his or her intended reader. The writer should have one intended reader in mind and write for that person.

The reader must have the impression that the writer wrote especially for her or him. It's a one-to-one, mind-to-mind form of communication.

The greatest writers of English broke many rules. They got away with it because they had their reputations to fall back on. Or did they build their reputations on the quality of their work?

The first rule of writing is to speak directly to the mind of the intended reader. Once that has been achieved, it's up to the editors to decide how much violation of the rules to allow.

The message must always come first. Only editors and poor writers care about rules.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to put the message before the rules.
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