In defence of language pedants

January 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm 2 comments

I have a little bone to pick with Stephen Fry. I couldn’t agree more with his impassioned plea that people take more pleasure in language. But Fry’s argument that the language pedants who complain about poor grammar and usage are linguistic killjoys is as skew-whiff as the kinetic typography that illustrates his rant.

According to Fry, people who complain about grocer’s apostrophes or misused words are ‘semi-educated losers’ with a ‘silly’ approach to language. He pours withering scorn on those who claim to stand up for clarity, accusing them of ‘eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness’. Ouch.

After all, according to Fry, there’s nothing unclear about ‘5 items or less’, and only a dolt fails to deduce the intended meaning of ‘disinterested’ from the context, age and education of the speaker.

Well, call me a dolt. Unless I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t actually want to have to deduce the meaning of communication more than necessary. In Steve Krug’s immortal words, don’t make me think if you want your message to be understood. Noticing a mistake and ‘deducing’ the real meaning may only take nanoseconds, but it momentarily impedes the message processing and is a distraction I can do without in my information-overloaded everyday life.

If ‘5 items or less’ no longer confuses anyone, the language pedants are fighting a lost cause and can safely be ignored. Natural selection in language evolution will weed out the distinction between less and fewer in due course. But I’m with the pedants who go into bat for clarity because it’s a vital part of enjoying language. You may not be on our side, Stephen, but we are on yours.

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jane Orchard  |  January 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    If some of the insanities of language misuse are to be curtailed, there needs to be more English language taught in journalism schools. It seems to me that our young reporters are the reason for the trendy bits in language. They appear to need to bring in new words or new uses of words to try to capture attention.

    An example for me is that that perfectly good word ‘before’ has almost disappeared. Whereas ‘before’ was used in a time context, and ‘ahead of’ was used for physical space, ‘before’ is not exotic enough. Now speeches are made ‘ahead of Friday’s conference’.

    We no longer have ‘high’ temperatures but ‘top’ temperatures. Invercargill is in for a ‘top’ of 24 degrees.

    And then there are the inanities which few reporters seem to understand. ‘The Prime Minister John Key’s cat died yesterday’ would be unsurprising. The fact that the cat then becomes prime minister just doesn’t occur to people. This is the most common silliness I see and hear in the news media. This is an instance where ab-using the language just destroys meaning and prevents the flexibility of meaning we can have if we use the language according to the rules. Absolutely nothing is added.

  • 2. JMA  |  February 2, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Having read what Stephen Fry had to say, I totally agree about the weakness of his argument. Of course he’s right that language isn’t a museum piece and keeps changing, but there’s a fundamental difference between creativity and ignorance. He tries to draw a comparison between people who struggle with basic spelling/grammar and William Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness, as if they are in any way the same. What utter rubbish. A lack of grammatical knowledge isn’t something to be admired and celebrated. My heart doesn’t sing when I read what they write; it just makes my brain hurt as I try to figure out what they’re on about. The brilliance of Shakespeare lies in his invention of new words and his ability to use English in new ways, not in his wildly variable spelling. Samuel Johnson and Co knew they were serving the greater good when they compiled their dictionaries and documented their rules of grammar, and I can’t see any good reason to throw their work back in their faces, certainly not because it allows people to call their impenetrable scribblings acts of creativity.


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