Monday, August 28, 2006

Monday oddments

Systematic failure and cores for concern

In the past week or two, the Times has been featuring occasional correspondence on the use and abuse of the apostrophe, and other simple but common errors in grammar and spelling.

There was, for instance, a correspondent whose son had received a commercially printed birthday card which declared proudly 'Now Your 18'. She asked her son whether he could see anything wrong with this. Nope. Looked OK to him. So she asked all his friends. Blank looks all round.

Then there was the person whose offspring was at a university. This particular institution decided that, in some parts of a building, it was necessary to don protective clothing. So a sign went up saying 'Where over all's'.

And today we have a story about the manager of a local supermarket who periodically pins up a sign for customers which reads 'You're toilets'.

Education is the industry to which I devoted an entire working lifetime, and this is the result. I think I may have to fall on my sword. However, I did my bit. The boys in my English class certainly knew the difference between your and you're. And about fifteen years ago I took part in a public debate in the pages of the Guardian, about whether or not it was important to teach children such things. After the dust had settled the features editor of the Guardian wrote to me and said that she and I had been the only two people, out of scores of contributors, who had thought that the teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation were remotely important. For the rest, all that mattered was that children should 'express themselves'.

Fifty million and rising

The Financial Times on Saturday had a not very interesting article about blogging, but it did contain the information that Technorati recently tracked its 50 millionth blog; and revealed that 175,000 new weblogs are being created every day.

A cartoon accompanied this piece. It showed a gang of monkeys working on keyboards, and in the background one scientist says to another, 'They never managed to produce a Shakespeare play on typewriters but we're confident they'll create a viable blog.'

Ho ho ho.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times says that Washington has been hit by 'the curse of the kid bloggers'. What is happening, apparently, is that the children of leading politicians are going online and are saying things which might prove embarrassing to their parents. Embarrassing, that is, if you live a life of breathtaking hypocrisy, which is what most politicians do.

I was going to say that none of this is remotely surprising. Why should we expect, I was going to say, that politicians' kids would be any different from anyone else's? But actually, when you think about it, there are quite good reasons why politicians' kids should be whackier than average.

For a start, Dad is never there. He's far too busy being an important mover and shaker. Secondly, when he is there, the kids hear him sounding off about this and that in forthright terms, only to see him on TV the next day saying the exact opposite, or making a statement which, when examined closely, says absolutely nothing at all. Such close exposure to the political process is pretty much guaranteed, one might think, to engender a more than usually high level of disgust, distrust, and contempt. Hence the habit of some daughters of dancing on bar tops and posting the pictures on the net. Fuck all that, you can practically hear them saying, this is what life is really all about.

Game for anything

Speaking of the young, I had my vocabulary enlarged yesterday. I found a new meaning (well, new to me) of the word 'game'.

Game, it seems, is the ability to talk people into things. Used-car salesmen have game. Real-estate agents have game. The people who talk you into buying an extended warranty on a washing machine, they’ve got game. And so, of course, have the young men who excel at chatting up the ladies.

Should you wish to pursue the matter, there are books on the subject. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these seem to concentrate on the sexual side of things. You could try, for instance, Neil Strauss's The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.

This was published by Regan Books in 2005 and comes in a leather-bound edition. (Leather-bound? No, I have no idea either.) And if you go to Amazon.com you find that the book has an average of 4.5 stars from 355 reviews, which is like serious stuff man. Most of us can summon up two or three friends who will say nice things on Amazon, but 355 must include a few genuine readers.

The Publishers Weekly review, quoted on Amazon, is worth reading for an insight into life as it is lived today. Although, if you've been watching Sex and the City, you probably know all about that already.

Neil Strauss is not without online references. You can find him on wikipedia and there is also quite an interesting interview with him on the Attraction Chronicles. Apart from anything else he seems to be a more than capable writer, both under his own name and as a ghost for celebrities.

There are other writers on the same subject, such as Tariq Nasheed: essential reading if you have ambitions to be a successful pimp.

But what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with publishing? Well, apart from shifting a lot of books, which is of more than passing interest, surely these techniques could be adapted by the shy retiring types who are having trouble finding an agent, publisher, or both. It is certainly clear that, in order to succeed in today's high-pressure book world, you need to be a first-class hustler. And if, having finally got a book into print, you can get out there and talk the talk, so much the better.

Deja vu time

You won't believe this, but there is yet another story circulating that Tim Waterstone is putting together a bid for his old shop. This is the seventh attempt, according to the Scotsman. (Link from booktrade.info.)

Book Festivals

Also in the Scotsman, Stuart Kelly wonders why people attend book festivals, his context being the book festival which runs in Edinburgh alongside the Fringe and everything else.

This is a good question. I was in Edinburgh at the time of the book festival, and I looked through the programme and found nothing that I was really keen to see. A couple of things that I might have gone into to get out of the rain perhaps. I also live within comfortable reach of Bath, Cheltenham, and Frome, all of which have literary festivals of some sort each year. And in ten years I've bothered to go to two items, only one of which was worth the effort (agent Mark Lucas talking about ghost writing).

Come to think of it though, I did once have a play performed in Bath for two nights, as part of a tour, and that was, technically, part of the literary festival. So I have actually taken part. Crumbs.

British taste

Last Friday's Graudian carried a disquisition upon British readers' current taste in books. Mark Lawson clearly knows his stuff and writes well. He points out that, of the top ten bestselling books in the UK last week, eight are depressing. Only eight?

More

Well, we still haven't cleared the backlog of stuff backed up from last week. But lunch beckons.

12 comments:

Andrew O'Hara said...

Well, you will no doubt cringe when I say youve (sic) got game.

Overall, what you're talking about is not just the dumbing-down of a generation or even a country. Everyone everywhere is encouraging it--especially in the publishing world. What's most frightening is that, for those who say grammar is "just grammar," it belies an institutionalized stupidity in thinking.

Reflective of that stupidity is the student who recently wrote that it's all good for her "self-steam." God help us all.

Iain said...

DERE GRUMPIE

YOUV’E MADE ME REELY ANGRIE!!! WHORE YOU TO TEL OTHER PEEPLE THAT THEY CA’NT SPEL AND THEY’RE PUNKUTASHONS NOE GUD!!?

I USED TO THINK YOU WERE GUD BUT NOW I THINK YOUR REELY STUPED. NOW I CAN SEE THAT YOU JUST SPEND ALL YOU’RE TIME LOOKING UP THE DIKSHONERY AND THATS’ WOT MAKES YOU A REELY BAD RIGHTER. DID NOEBODIE EVOR TEL YOU THAT WHAT MATERS IS SELFICK’S PRESHON? SUMBODIE SHUD OF!!!

WHEN I RIGHT I DO’NT BOTHER MUTCH WITH THINGS’ LAIK SPELING AND PUNKUTASHON BECOZ PUBLISHER’S HAVE GOT EDDITER’S TO DO ALL THAT SO THAT RIGHTER’S DO’NT HAVE TO WAIST THEY’RE TIME!!--MAYBE NOEBODIE EVOR TOLED YOU THAT AITHER!!??!!

ALRITE SO NOBODIE EVOR PUBLISHED ME YET BUT ONE EDDITER ONCE SAID THAT HED NEVOR SEEN ENNYTHING LAIK MY WORK HE SAID IT MADE HIM WO’NT TO GIVE UP SO WOT DO YOU THINK A BOWT THAT??

SUMTIMES ITS USEFULL TO USE PUNKUTASHON BUT NOT ALL WAYS. FOR IXAMPLE I OFFEN USE FOOL’S TOPS’ BECOZ THEY CAN MAKE YOU’RE MEANING CLERER. BUT I ALL MOST NEVOR BOTHER WITH COMA’S THEY JUST PUT ME TO SLEAP. FOOL’S TOPS’ MATER AND COMA’S DO’NT PEARIOD!!!

GRUMPIE,--(SEE I CAN USE COMA’S IF I WANT TO!)--YOUR A BAD INFLUENTS!! YOU JUST THINK IF PEEPLE CAN SPEL AND PUNKUTATE THEN THEIR GOOD RIGHTER’S BUT THEIR NOT. LOT’S OF PEEPLE CAN’T SPEL FOR TOFFY BUT THERE BRILIENT RIGHTER’S!! SUMBODIE ONCE TOLED ME THAT GEFFRY ARCHOR CA’NT SPEL AND HES’ THE MOST SUKSESFULL RIGHTER TODAE. AND LAIK I SAID PUNKUTASHON IS JUST A MATER OF OPINIEN.

TEL ME WOTS’ THE MATER WITH YOU’RE TOILETS?? DOES ENNYBODIE NO? I SUPOSE YOU THINK IT SHUD BE THE TOILETS. RONG-- YOU CAN CHUSE! NOW MAYBE IT WUD BE BETER TO PUT YOU’RE TOILET’S BUT IT JUST DOES’NT MATER. ITS ALL A MATER OF OPINIEN. EVRIEBODIE UNDER STANDS AND THATS’ WHAT MATERS!!!

AND TEL ME A BOWT NOW YOUR 18. SOE THIS STUPED WOMON CUD’NT UNDER STAND WHY HER SUN AND HIS FREIND’S SORE NUTHING RONG WITH IT. WEL I CAN TEL YOU WHY. ITS BECOZ THERE IS NUTHING RONG WITH BEEING 18. IT JUST SEAMS THAT WAY WHEN YOUR OLDER LAIK YOU AND THAT STUPED WOMON.

IM NEVOR GOING TO REED YOU A GAIN. WOT DO YOU THINK A BOWT THAT??? DO’NT FEAL SO CLEVOR NOW DO YOU??? HARDLIE ENNYBODIE BOTHERS TO REED YOU ENNY WAY AND NOW THEIR IS ONE LESS. HA HA. THATS’ WOT YOU GET FOR BEING A GRATE BIG SNOBE!!

YOUR’S SINSERLEY

HA HA! NOE IM NOT GOING TO TEL YOU WHO I AM BECOZ THEN YOU CUD COME AFTER ME AND IM NOT STUPED EAVEN IF YOU THINK I AM!!! HA HA HA!!!!!

(P.S. YOU’RE TOILETS!!)

veetraag said...

In my country some people have started using american spellings, but the educational institutions still prefer the british ones. So this has resulted in a hybrid language which is neither british nor american nor indian. The sad part is that most of the people using americanisms and their way of speling are not doing this for any affinity for american english, but rather because they think this somehow makes them cool (sic).
Also the declining rate of reading anything remotely resembling literature has had an adverse effect on people's language as well. So they are able to speak fluently but most of them will be hard-pressed to express themselves in anythi9ng more than basic, school-level english.
What is the situation like in UK?

Francis Ellen said...

We cannot halt the evolution of language, and we do not have the wherewithall to gauge that evolution.

An analogy might be Carl Sagan's two-dimensional creatures who perceive an apple falling through their world as a line (with zero height) on the horizon that expands then contracts. It is simply outside of our intellectual capacity to fully comprehend the totality that is language.

To simply dismiss the complexity involved is to miss the glory of language.

Iain has offered a playful example of characterization based on nothing more than his perception of a mode of speech, and who among us can help but cringe when we hear kids talking in 'text'?

But try explaining to a four-year old why 'enough' isn't eenuf? English spelling borders on insanity but it's certainly not the most difficult of languages.

It is 'just grammar'. Just like we are 'just' humans and life is 'just' whatever it is. It belongs as much to the people with low 'self-steam' as the rest of us. If you've never heard of the word 'esteem' then 'steam' makes sense. This is truly human intelligence, our crowning glory, naively at work, soaring a million miles above our current structures. Could not this be a question in a future Call My Bluff where everyone laughs when they find out that five hundred years ago people used the meaningless 'esteem' instead of the correct 'steam'? After all, is it not clear that 'steam' is what one must possess to value oneself? (Do I need an apostrophe there?)

In the UK there is hardly an insult that cuts as deeply as the pointing-out of grammatical 'mistakes'. I've seen racial slurs treated like water off a duck's back by the same man who was close to tears when his 'stupidity' in misuse of a verb was 'pointed out' to smirking colleagues.

And the mistakes brandished are no more than fashion. When people in Britain started earning enough money that even the poorest could no longer be distinguished (branded) by their dress we (British) humans quickly managed to elevate the class DNA that is 'the accent' or the vocabulary or the spelling or the grammar. In the nineteenth century even the upper classes had regional accents but the BBC put a stop to that caper. Let's face it, Oxford and Cambridge were being overrun by clever little oiks and if they're wearing the same scarf or the same blazer or the same fucking socks then how is a chap to differentiate? Yes, the way they speak is hard to change; let's get British about it.

Thank God for the yanks. You can walk a thousand miles from anywhere in the United States and hardly come upon a functioning literate. If you venture below the Mason-Dixon line you get an idea of why the chimps in Planet of the Apes act the way they do. But at least Cletis knows that book lernin aint all they is.

I can't count how many books I've read on grammar and still I've never read a thing that seems to explain it. In the UK it's one of those things we love to get superior about. The ludicrous categorizations, which in themselves are fantastic achievements (although we might want to pause on the meaning of fantastic while we're about it) are little more than an intellectual game, usually practiced by those with a sliver of knowledge more than the rest. Grammar is too often used as a club and I, for one, am ecstatic to see that most people don't give a flying fuck whether a sector of society believes them to be inferior or not.

Make no mistake grammar is, to this day, one of the most powerful weapons we use to demoralize those who might have a life beyond the hoodie.

This obsession with correctness is driven by the same impulse that takes money out of my pocket so that some twit can shit on a plate and call himself an artist. It is driven by the same impulse that excluded and destroyed a generation of artists who had to find proper work when they could not compete with blank canvasses and drippy masterpieces. It is the same impulse that inspires dimbulbs to force themselves through 'difficult' books because they think it makes them 'better'. It is the same impulse that ensures that entertainment in the UK, and the admission rights to the club, are owned by scroungers who get to cut their teeth on the public shilling.

It is always and forever about ownership, about property rights.

But you don't get to own the language.

You can ridicule those who seem to be lesser than yourself for their gaffes or you can help those who need it but every mistake, every cringeworthy error is a step on the evolutionary trail toward a better understanding of at least ourselves, if not the behemoth that is language.

Of course, we need a common language but assuming that these 'event' are simply a dumbing down is to miss a reality.

If anyone actually reads this diatribe know that using words like 'stupidity' and 'dumbing down' does nothing but alienate fellow human beings. It is little more than a modern form of the curse; it ought to be meaningless but unfortunately it is not as long as the victim also believes.

It is not for you or me to judge intelligence by grammar or vocabulary. Why on earth is the first impulse to cry 'stupidity'?

If you need to find stupidity in the publishing world look at the shit that gets published in the name of literature. People read something that seems complex to them. They're afraid. What if somebody susses them? What if the world finds out they're thick? No, better to read Proust or Beckett. Need a fix of clever? Why, try a Booker winner.

Quentin Tarantino, it is said, cannot spell and his grammar (to use the technical term) is up his arse. Nevertheless, he made a movie (Pulp Fiction) that redefined and expanded the vocabulary and grammar of cinema.

Django Reinhardt could neither read nor write music but he redefined the vocabulary and grammar of jazz guitar and of jazz itself. Charlie Christian, another illiterate guitarist, used to have an 'interpreter' to write down and name the chords that Christian was inventing. Make no mistake, there were people who sneered at those two but, of course, their technical prowess could not be argued with but thousands of others, not blessed with such towering genius, were damned to hell and obscurity by their betters.

We live in a country where people sneer at a painting that looks like something we recognize whilst garden sheds win awards. The 'modern' has been with us for almost a hundred years yet still shit and garbage masquerading as art conquers all.

It's the same thing. Arty television shows and yawning think pieces in the press tell us what's good for us.

I watched the Young Musician of the Year this year thinking that the snobbery in classical music must have dissipated somewhat in the twenty years since I studied music and what do I hear but the usual upper-middle class low brow telling me that a piece by Joaquin Rodrigo ".. is of course, inconsequential..."

This is the same. Grammar itself will win always. There is no dumbing down. It's all in your noggin.

Will Entrekin said...

I think I read somewhere that Strauss' book "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists" was designed to resemble a Bible. Because it was a Bible for single men seeking to improve their game, as the Game became a religion, basically, for the men who became pick-up artists. It overwhelmed their lives as much as Christ overwhelms those of born-again Christians.

It's a great book, as well. I don't remember seeing you mention it (I'm on the comment page now), but Strauss also co-wrote the memoirs of Motley Crue and Marilyn Manson.

Iain said...

Lest Francis Ellen (or anyone else for that matter) should mistake me for a pedant, I'd better say something more serious about grammar.

Grammar is constantly evolving. A language whose grammar never changes is dead. Like Latin. The notion (upheld by some idiot on BBC radio not long ago) that the language of Shakespeare is superior to the language of black kids in American inner-cities is pure garbage. It is impossible for any variant of a language to be better than any other; different, that's all.

To believe (as some do) that our language is in decline is to misunderstand the nature of language. A language cannot decline except in the sense that decreasing numbers of people might speak it. No language can be other than (to quote John Reid) fit for purpose.

Ain't was once in common use by royalty and aristocracy as well as everyone else, and in the eighteenth century, you was was universally accepted. Examples could be multiplied at random and ad infinitum.

Spelling was first regularised two and a half centuries ago by Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary. Before that, it was a free for all: Shakespeare, for instance, doesn't seem to have been sure how to spell his own name.

Grammar, by contrast, cannot be regularised. Any grammarian worthy of the name accepts that grammar can be described but never prescribed.

So we should all suit ourselves as to what grammar we use? Oh no, we bloody shouldn't, and we should be very wary of inverted snobbery here. I once knew an English teacher (in the seventies, as you might guess) who, as he put it, refused to impose his grammar on anyone else.

He was wrong. We have written as well as spoken language, and written language is used for communication between people whose dialects may be mutually incomprehensible. There have to be norms and any teacher who leaves his or her students in ignorance of these norms ought to be shot.

In the Middle Ages and even beyond, Latin was the lingua franca of scholarship. It would be very easy to scoff at the snobbishness of those who insisted on writing in a language impenetrable to the common people, but it would also be very stupid.

Written English, generally speaking, makes use of a dialect (because that's what it is) normally called Standard English. Like other dialects, it is in a constant state of flux. But, like it or not, we must recognise that we can't do without it.

I was once angrily confronted by an Egyptian student whose spelling I had corrected. He told me that it was unfair to expect foreign learners to make any sense of the madness of English orthography. (Arabic, you see, is written phonetically.) I told him that, whether it was fair or not, spelling errors could seriously damage his prospects in life. Spelling may be a shibboleth, but shibboleths matter. Ask an Ephraimite.

The same is true of grammar, including, for instance, the use of apostrophes. In most cases, we could do perfectly well without them: clarity would be unimpaired. But if I were still a teacher of English, I would be guilty of gross dereliction of duty if I failed to teach their 'correct' use.

er . . . that's it.

JodyTresidder said...

Francis/Iain,
I loved both of your comments!
Francis, I also agree with your lovely points about "self-steam".
I think it's the "Language Log" website that would define self-steam as an "egg corn"? (I can't quite be bothered to check but I believe "egg corn" is LL's slightly fey coinage meaning a semantically useful mishearing, hence "acorn" becomes an egg-shaped seed/egg corn)... er, whatever!

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Leather Jackets said...

Overall, what you're talking about is not just the dumbing-down of a generation or even a country. Everyone everywhere is encouraging it--especially in the publishing world.

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