Sunday, 31 July 2005

In the course of a discussion on the RNA's private mailing list I found myself rather carried away into rant mode on one of my pet subjects - the rules of English and why there are none. Always keen on the principles of recycling, I thought that I would share my thoughts here too.

I feel quite strongly that there are no universal "rules" of English. Many of the most-often quoted "rules" (not splitting infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions) have been retrofitted to the language by the likes of Dryden in an attempt to make English fit their own ideas of how a language should work (by which is meant "just like classical Latin). The rules are not inherent in the language itself, which, after all, evolved into its modern form(s) through constant use by people who did not stop to think about underlying structure as well as by grammarians.

That is not to say that there is no such thing as good and bad writing, nor does it mean that writers should not learn the language as well as they possibly can, but what we need to learn is what works. And by "works" I mean what most effectively communicates what we want to say to our intended audience. Clumsy turns of phrase, misplaced commas and misuse of the subjunctive aren't "wrong" but they can be distracting. Distraction is the enemy. As soon as readers start noticing our use of English we have lost them.

Publishers' house styles reflect publishers' experiences of what works and what doesn't for their readers. I suspect that the house rules for HMB are not exactly the same as those for the Guardian, because they have different audiences. Each has its set of loyal readers who become used to their particular way of doing things, and who may well be distracted by a different approach.

But house styles tend to focus on the superficial details, where a concise set of guidelines can be drawn up (the Guardian stylebook is 190 pages long, Hart's Rules come in under 90 pages if you ignore the guidance on Foreign languages). No such guide is ever going to be able to set out everything there is to say about effective writing. For that we have to inhabit the language totally. This is where an author's unique voice comes from - our individual interaction with every element of the language that we use. It gives us rhythm and pace, mood and tone. Georgette Heyer evokes sadness one way, Ian Fleming does it another way. Neither is more right, nor is either closer or further away from "proper" English. It would be phenomenally difficult to explain why each writer's passage conjures up that particular emotion - it must be in the words because that is all there is, but which words?

That is why I think that the pursuit of "correct" English is a shibolleth. It doesn't - and can't - get anywhere near what really matters to me as a reader and as a writer.

I will continue to fight battles on behalf of the subjunctive, and to preserve the distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested", not because it is morally right to do so, but because I believe that every time such a battle is lost, the language loses a little bit of its power and subtlety. In the end I don't want an English that is considered as "correct" as possible by some sort of Academy, but one that is felt to be as rich as possible by those who use it every day.


Pam Cleaver said...

I agree with you about uninterested and disinterested which seem to be becoming almost interchangeable these days, alas, as are the words that gets me hot under the collar stanch and staunch. 8 out of 10 writes these days get it wrong. Probably only stuffy old septuageniarians like me who care.

pam said...

PS - writers, of course, not writes.

Alex Bordessa said...

Good grief, Stephen. I'm not on the RNA discussion list, but this is what's been on my mind in the last couple of days!

Liz Harris said...

Liz Harris said ......

Fewer and fewer people know when to use a subjunctive, and the fight to preserve its use would seem to be a losing battle. The use of 'disinterested' for 'uninterested', and vice versa, is a different matter: the two words mean different things, and to use either incorrectly would distort the meaning the author intended. And what about fewer/less, due/owing ....?

Gabriele C. said...

I like the point you make about "inhabiting the language". It's strange, but writing fiction for me has become intimately connected with writing in English despite it's not my native language. For non-fiction, I prefer my native German, though, and I always get a feeling that my English essays in History sound clumsy.

Regarding those grammar rules - I try not to break them too often, but sometimes a sentence just flows better breaking them. ;)

Paul said...

Subjunctive? Isn't that another concept (in English) invented in imitation of Latin?

You only need two terms to describe English verbs - call them "present tense" and "past tense", because that is the most obvious contrast in meaning. Everything else is constructed with auxilliary verbs - "I can/may/will/have come", a simple verb form for "imperatives", and some more subtle "past"/"present" contrasts.

Compare "I will if I can" to "I would if I could". No difference in temporal reference; the same conditional construction; but past tense form indicating a significant difference in meaning.

The "past tense" form is used to indicate tentativeness or politeness ("could I ask you..."), or unreal conditions ("I would if I could")

(Is "If I were you..." evidence of a special form? No, it is the simple "I/He was looking" that is irregular.)

Harriet did not bat said...

The one that's been getting me spitting for a few years now is the growing use of "may" for "might" in circumstances where all possibility that X may happen is an ex-parrot. Some people appear to have no sense of the difference between an open and a closed condition.