Punctuality Rules!

Dressing Up Your Casual-Wear Writing

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and LeftI’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.
j0430842.jpgIf 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….

11 thoughts on “Dressing Up Your Casual-Wear Writing

  1. Melissa Donovan

    What a wonderful essay Deb! I couldn’t agree more. Also, it’s these many different outfits we keep in our wardrobes that make writing and reading engaging and diverse. Even if we’re all going to a casual party, each writing is going to have a slightly different style. Variety is the spice of life! Cliche, I know, but oh so true!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Link Love Mad Libs Writing Exercise for Bloggers

  2. --Deb

    The book is really interesting, too. The first half gives a very general overview of the history of people trying to apply rules to the ever-changing English language, but the second half starts really addressing why that doesn’t necessarily work. I’m really enjoying reading it, and it’s making me think–in a good way!

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Question

  3. Perpetual Beginner

    Very nice analogy. I’m envious.

    For many years, my language use was very much like my grandmother’s closet – I could pull out an appropriate set for any formal occassion. Talking to authority figures, talking as an authority figure, academic papers, academic lectures, anyplace where some form of relatively formal usage was appropriate, I was good to go.

    But I had no linguistic blue-jeans. I struck people meeting me for the first time as stuck-up. I had a five-year-old who could define “defenestrate” and use it appropriately. Verbally, I couldn’t use conjunctions – could not. I literally used more conjunctions typing than I did when speaking to people. Quick e-mails would have looked entirely appropriate on a Victorian greeting card.

    Oddly enough it was writing a novel that started to loosen me up. I couldn’t possibly write a novel full of people who all talked the way I did – it would have looked ridiculous. And so I learned. Maybe someday, I’ll even learn to argue.

    Perpetual Beginner’s last blog post..I Said “Ow” Too Soon

  4. --Deb

    I can speak in “casual wear” but not in “shorts and flip-flops”–I think there’s a certain level of language below which I’m not willing to go, but still, it’s different than using “defenestrate” in a sentence when “tossed out the window” will work! I mean, really, if I expected all my friends to have as good a vocabularly as I do, I wouldn’t have many friends at all! (Said, honestly, without bragging. It’s just a side-effect of my massive reading obsession.)

    –Deb’s last blog post..How to Prevent Equipment Failures from Ruining Your Writing

  5. Perpetual Beginner

    Oddly, my vocabulary tended to be higher end when talking than when writing. I wasn’t consciously trying to out-do anybody vocabulary-wise, I just used the words I had been brought up to use – by two very literarily-inclined parents and a cut-throat competitive school. In writing I realized the usefulness of simple, direct language far earlier than in my spoken usage.

    Perpetual Beginner’s last blog post..Books Read: 1st Half of 2008

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  9. Andrew

    Deb,

    When I was a young lad at school, those in charge of determining the English school curriculum in my home country of Australia decided to adopt a significant shift in emphasis away from the teaching of grammar and rules and toward a focus on developing communicative ability.

    As a result, Australian children my age were barely taught any grammar at all, and were taught very little about the structure of the English language and how the pieces of the puzzle work together when creating a piece of written English communication.

    In hindsight, however, I wish that I had learned the rules of grammar. Although I am able to communicate very well, I just feel as if my command of the language has been ‘dumbed down,’ to a certain degree.

    To be sure, free expression does necessitate the breaking of rules to some degree. But in my view, it would be better to know what the rules are and break them by choice, than to live (as I do) with a great deal of ignorance about how the structure of the English language fits together to allow for effective communication.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Heads should not necessarily role – this time

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