I’m in the middle of reading a book called The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal, about language and the way we use, need, and apply rules. His premise is that grammar pundits who insist on rules are not acting in the best interests of the language. He says in the introduction, “How should we deal with the disturbing note that is creeping into contemporary debate on the subject? … Zero tolerance? That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?” Now, I’m only halfway through the book, and so can’t tell you exactly in what way they (and I?) are harming the language, but the chapter I just read over lunch got me thinking….
The crux of this particular chapter is that you need as many different dialects and variations on a language as you do clothes in your wardrobe. If you only have one outfit to wear, so that you use it for everything from jogging to work to dinner out on the town (not to mention state dinners, mucking out stalls, sky-diving, and every other event in your life), you are going to have problems. No single outfit in this day and age can possibly cover all the possibilities. Similarly, you are going to speak differently to your five year-old than you do to your chums at the local bar … or to your boss, clients, or the President of the United States.
It’s certainly true. I can’t quite imagine somebody being introduced to George Bush and saying, “Hey, buddy. How ya’ doing?” Nor did I ever lean toward my niece when she was small and say, “Inserting that silicate plaything into your oral orifice is a short-sighted plan detrimental to your well-being.” There is no one writing (or speaking) style that works for every occasion. As Mr. Crystal puts it, “If children have only one variety of language to use, it is like having a single-item wardrobe. On the other hand, if they have been made aware of all the varieties in a language–by degrees, of course, during a language syllabus of several years–then they leave school linguistically fully dressed.”
The thought that keeps flitting through my head, though, is that–while this is true, and having variations available is healthy (not to mention stylish)–you should still know the “correct” rules to begin with. There’s an old saying that, “You need to know the rules to break them,” which is sheer nonsense. It’s easier to break rules when you don’t know they exist, you just don’t realize you’ve broken them. Any lawyer can tell you that ignorance is no defense.
The difference, though, is that if all you want to write at the the lowest common denominator level of English, you can write the same way your five-year old does. You’ll get your point across, more or less, without any fancy bells and whistles like complex sentences or parallel construction in a bullet list. But just like clothing, you get noticed for the way you present yourself, and if you can write in an intelligent way, you’ll make a better impression than if you don’t. Just ask Eliza Doolittle if her lessons in speech, deportment and dress didn’t make a difference when she headed back to Convent Station to visit her old cronies. First impressions are key.
If varied language use is analogous to having a well-rounded wardrobe, I submit that the more serious and formal you want to be, the more rules you need to know. You can hang out with friends in jeans, t-shirts, and your most comfortable, worn-in phrases of speech. Any schmuck can put on a sweat suit, scratch himself, and grunt for a beer, but you’re not going to be able to take him to a white-tie affair without a little sprucing up. You need to wear a suit and tie at a funeral, untorn jeans on a date, and a tuxedo, gloves and a cravat at a state dinner–and none of those come without some set of rules. How do you match a shirt with the suit? What kind of shoes do you need to wear? And how do you actually put on that stiff-fronted shirt and collar studs? And, also, while wearing it, stand up straight, brush your hair, and remember to use your napkin during dinner.
The more formal you want to be, the more rules you need to know. You can’t write an academic paper in the same informal tone that you use in a letter to a friend. You’re not going to write to that friend in the same way you wrote the life-changing job proposal you just submitted at work, and there’s apparently some kind of rule against writing an instruction manual with any clarity whatsoever. If you can’t construct the sentences with correct grammar and vocabulary, you’re going to look just as out-of-place as that beer-drinking schmuck being introduced to President Bush. You’ll be able to communicate beautifully with your buddies, but you’re less likely to be invited to speak about serious matters of state over in the West Wing–no matter how intelligent you are.
Is this the point that Mr. Crystal is going to make in upcoming chapters? I have no idea, but I loved his wardrobe analogy.
Now, I just need to go change my clothes….