22 October 2010

Correct me if i'm wrong...

The video above us here is of Stephen Fry reading a piece he wrote, which was then typographically animated by Matt Rogers. (You may remember Fry from my post Nouns and Verbs back in July.)

There are two things that immediately come to mind when i'm watching this. The first is wondering if Stephen Fry was the voice of the Guide in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. (He was.) The second is how much i both agree and disagree with his thoughts on language.

He talks of those he calls pedants acting more like dictatorial school masters than lovers of language. I agree that those of us who know the rules need not run around like we have the blessing of Lynn Truss (who's books i thoroughly enjoy), Sharpie in hand correcting the obvious-to-us mistakes of billboards, advertisements, highway signs and store-front windows. (I'm not talking about this guy specifically, but he did come to mind.) More can be done to promote proper use of language through illustration than correction.

Even where i disagree, it's only because i don't agree fully with his assertion that these pedants who fight for the clarity of language don't give a hoot about clarity at all. It's true that the sign reading '10 items or less' is just as clear as the grammatically correct '10 items or fewer.' Yet we are surrounded by many who's daily lives are inundated with the use and manipulation of language, yet even they are often failing to illustrate accurate meaning through their words.

I'm talking of course about those who work in the fast-declined newspaper business. I would dare to say, as a group they are more often responsible for the lack of clarity in language than those in any other profession, and their jobs are directly tied to the handling of language! I realize there are many constraints, from editors to time to space. Yet so very often, we still read headlines like 'Briton killed by drone tied to Times Square bomber.' What they meant to say was 'linked,' not 'tied.' Sometimes it's not clarity they lack, but specificity. 'The nuclear submarine USS Seawolf surfaced after spending 60 days submerged in water' is clear enough, but with a specific body of water listed, the sentence becomes far less silly.

On one hand, Fry states that using language well is more beneficial than correcting those who don't, yet those who use language most aren't always using it well themselves. I think where Fry finds himself frustrated is the way in which correction often happens. Most often we are corrected with the air of self-righteous indignation that language herself has been abused, when, in fact, it's mostly mistakenly misused. Very rarely is language actually abused and where it is, we should stand up with indignation (leaving the self-righteousness at home locked in the basement where it belongs). But when mistakes occur, as they so often do, correction should be done with care and gentleness, then we won't need to hide behind any sort of mask of clarity.

Edit: Finally got the video above to fit into the page parameters.