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Recovering the lost English language:

In my last post, I quickly pooh-poohed the idea that, when someone talks about "correct" English, they mean inherently right (as opposed to good for a particular goal):

Because when different people are speaking mutually incomprehensibly, this is as if one were speaking German and the other were speaking Spanish. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If these different people are speaking differently than each other but they can still understand each other, it's like a German speaker and a Spanish speaker who each understand both German and Spanish — like when my father talks to me in Russian and I answer back in English. Nothing inherently wrong with that either. So the only way I can understand "right," in matters of language, is in the functional sense — "proper to achieve a particular goal."

Commenter Obelisk18 suggests that I dismiss the "inherently right" possibility too easily. An excerpt from him (slightly altered):

For instance, it’s plausible that one of two dialects, both of which are posing as "English", ought to be preferred (or thought "inherently good"), because it’s closer, in various ways, to what was originally meant by the word "English". Assuming of course that we can date the word "english", in relation to language, historically, and assuming that there was a general agreement on it’s meaning (i.e, a common usage). These are by no means easy assumptions, and based on what I know of history, the latter at least seems especially bold. But, I don’t think either is, on it’s face, unreasonable. After all, the word "English" did come into usage at some point, and the person, or persons, who first employed it, meant something by it. I’d [contend] that this is a plausible way of defining "inherently good".

Excellent, this has always been a long-term goal of mine. Because, you see, as I remarked once before on this blog, I actually know some English as it was originally meant. Let's all recite together:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah,
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád,
wéox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan, þæt wæs gód cyning.

O.K., I hear you cry, not that far back. Sure, the word "English," in one spelling or another, was used way back around 880, Alfred and Guthrum's Treaty referred to the English and the Danes ("Engliscne & Deniscne"), and around 1000, Ethelred's laws talked about what would happen "gif Ænglisc man Deniscne ofslea" (if an English man slays a Dane). And the word was also used to refer to the language (c. 1000, "Ðu bæde me for oft Engliscra ȝewrita."). Nonetheless, we are, after all, Normans.

O.K., so let's all recite together (Chaucer is soooo 1387!):

Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydeȝ were,
Quere-so-euer I jugged gemmeȝ gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle wythouten spot.

Start talking like that, and:

  1. you'll be welcome at my medieval reading group (Fridays in my office at noon), and

  2. I'll take you seriously when you say it's inherently better to use English to exclude new forms because the word "English" ought to refer to what it referred to originally. I'll laugh at you, but I'll take that particular argument seriously.

I'll still say:

  1. What if "English," at first, only referred to "the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be among all the different dialects spoken by Anglo-Saxons in Britain"? I will bet good money that the first people who talked about the English language were not grammar purists. (Perhaps, however, they complained about how far Saxon had diverged from the original Saxon they spoke back in Saxony!)

  2. What if "English," as it's always been used, has always been a dynamic term, meaning the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be, at whatever time is relevant from context, among some of the different dialects spoken in Britain? (Only some — mind the Celts!) (Obviously now we would include places outside of Britain where people speak in ways that are comprehensible to people in Britain who speak English under this definition.)

  3. And, most importantly, I'll say: O.K., suppose I buy the idea that "correct English" should mean "English as she used to be spoke." That's fine, I don't insist on labels. But if we define correct English that way, then I deny that there's anything necessarily good about speaking correct English. The point in my post below is: Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals, regardless whether it follows anybody's stated rule. There are rules of good and bad speaking — there are objectively better and worse ways of pursuing particular goals — but you can't figure out what they are until you figure out what you're trying to do, and in particular who you're trying to speak to.

martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

Wouldn't it be easier to define English simply as the language spoken in England? Any variety of English spoken there would have to count as proper English, unless by proper English one means the Queen's English or BBC English or any authoritative settlement of the issue. (Oxford/Cambridge dictionaries, etc.)

Unlike many other languages (French, Dutch) there is no official settlement of what English grammar and spelling should be. (I'm most familiar with my own language, Dutch, where there is such a thing as the Dutch language union, consisting of culture ministers from the Netherlands and Flanders. The spelling and grammar rules that are promulgated by this body are the gospel. I think in France the Académie Française has a similar function.)

Incidentally, any reference to original usage would have to fail. Part of the reason why English English, i.e. the English language as it is spoken in England, is in many ways superior to American English is that it is more vital, more living. For example, like in many other languages, there is a tendency for strong verbs to become weak over time. Hence my surprise when learned that the correct (or a correct) past tense for the verbe "to dive" is "dived". US English is more conservative, I am told, and as such it is an outlier among the world's languages.

This is pretty much where my knowledge ends, though, since I am myself not a linguist...
7.24.2007 11:14am
Hoosier:
'Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals,'--echoes Orwell's dictum that the most important rule of writing is to violate any rule of writing rather than write something that sounds bad.

Context is key, since languages are always contextual; Wittgenstein's comments on the impossibility of private language are relevant here. And languages evolve. (Or were created 10,000 years ago on Tuesday. Take your pick.)

Having said that, people will judge you based on your grammar and vocabulary. So one does have an incentive to do what Sr. Agatha taught one in fourth grade, and learn to speak and write 'correctly.' Employment and advancement can depend quite heavily on how one deploys standard English.
7.24.2007 11:14am
Hoosier:
But England has so many regional variations and class distinctions. Do you say "very" or "veddy"? And RP comes across as artificial, and always reminds me of Stewie Griffin.

Proscription doesn't work well in languages. And with so many speakers of English in so many places around the world, it will keep changing.

But there is the problem with confusion when words change meanings. As an example: When I hear someone say that he was 'bemused,' I am no longer sure what he means. 'Bemused' is defined as being like 'bewildered.' But I think it's taking on the meaning of 'amused,' since it sounds similar. My plan is to simply avoid the word.
7.24.2007 11:23am
Roundhead (mail) (www):
the strength of English, at least since the Norman invasion, is that it carries many attributes of pidgin - modern English is essentially a creole consisting of the union, first of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, and then the successor language of this union, with Norman French.

thanks
7.24.2007 11:34am
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
Another point to acknowledge: Each of us uses different dialects of English even within the course of a single day. For example:

(1) Formal English used in writing. (e.g. a court brief)
(2) Formal English used in speaking. (more likely to use colloquialisms, but still formal)

Just to differentiate: Waaaaay back when I was in high school, my English class was assigned a persuasive speaking assignment. One student spoke her piece in 100% formal English. As a result it was much more ineffective than the pieces by those who chose a less formal style.

(3) Less formal English used in writing (think: quick e-mails between friends/family all the way down to AIM-speak)
(4) Completely colloquial spoken English.

Note that some languages, like Arabic, actually have an "official" written language which bears little resemblance to the languages spoken across northern Africa and the Middle East. The fact that most people don't realize that each of us speaks multiple dialects in our daily lives is irrelevant given that each of us has at least a subconscious knowledge of the language style deemed appropriate in any given situation and can code-switch between them. Nor does is any one form the "correct" form of English; it's correct if the people around you think it's appropriate.

For one over-the-top example, think back to the Borat movie and the language that Borat used when trying to book a hotel room for the night.
7.24.2007 11:48am
jimbino (mail):
Sasha's "...when someone talks about "correct" English, they mean inherently right.." is a good example of the solecism of the decade. It brands the writer as a feminist, careless about grammar and accurate conveyance of meaning, or desperate to be politically correct.

You don't know how many times I have to correct something like, "The parent who brings children in for treatment has to have their blood pressure taken first thing." You do well to stick to dead languages, else you kill someone someday with your bad grammar.

Do you ever wonder what you would sound like translated into a foreign language? The machine would screw up for sure and a human translator would have to charge you double to get it right.
7.24.2007 11:52am
Jam:
"Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals, regardless whether it follows anybody's stated rule. There are rules of good and bad speaking — there are objectively better and worse ways of pursuing particular goals — but you can't figure out what they are until you figure out what you're trying to do, and in particular who you're trying to speak to."

This explains the shift in speaking pattern when certain individuals go to speak to the NAACP.
7.24.2007 11:55am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I feel jimbino is criticizing the "someone... they" form. I am unapologetic about this form and urge people to use it whenever they want. Let us recite cases where this has been used earlier than this decade:

1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yf they omyt one verse or twayne.

1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

1749 FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. xi, Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.

1759 CHESTERFIELD Lett. IV. ccclv. 170 If a person is born of a gloomy temper they cannot help it.

1835 WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173 Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would.

1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206 Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety.

1866 RUSKIN Crown Wild Olives §38 (1873) 44 Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing.
7.24.2007 11:58am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I think Sasha has finally stumbled across the real problem with English -- we need to bring back eth and thorn. Maybe yogh, too, if we can all agree on what sound it represents.

In the words of James Nicoll:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
7.24.2007 11:58am
Kovarsky (mail):
Sasha,

I feel like the more obvious retort to Jimibo is that his sentence should be reformed not so much because of his suggested injunction to properly use grammar, but because it fails to effectively convey the necessary contextual meaning - which seems to be your entire point.

The speaker fails to convey which person - the parent or the child - should have their blood pressure taken. Sure, conforming to a grammarian's bible can sometimes make things clearer, but it's the clarity itself that matters - not the grammatical correctness.
7.24.2007 12:14pm
crane (mail):
One of Samuel Johnson's stated objectives in compiling and publishing the first all-encompassing dictionary of English was "to prevent the further degeneration of the English language".
7.24.2007 12:16pm
BChurch (mail):
Isn't this debate a very close analog to genetic evolution?

In other words, some emergent change is needed in order for the evolution to take place, but for the most part, it pays to at least try to keep things in line from generation to generation. After all, most mutations have a neutral or negative survival value.

In terms of language, if everyone "mutated" English at will, English wouldn't be very practical in terms of communication. Still, there has to be a change somewhere for evolution to take place (and per your example, it obviously has). Someone had to be the first person ever to say "ain't".
7.24.2007 12:17pm
Kovarsky (mail):
I just get the sense that the language purists on this thread are suggesting that someone signals intelligence more effectively by saying "ergo." I must confess I think that using that term colloquially conveys that you're a dweeb, and not much more.

I'm sure that the word "y'all" is not SWE, but I'm from Texas and I defend the use of that word to the death, because it is so much less cumbersome than the alternative "you guys," and everybody knows what you mean. Maybe I signal that I'm from Texas which I'm not altogether proud of at the moment, but I don't think it signals much else.
7.24.2007 12:21pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

Latest improvement: In English English, they've invented a great new word a few years ago. It even made it into the new Harry Potter. It is: "Oi" and it is useful for so many purposes, as long as it is used with an appropriate tone of voice, etc.
7.24.2007 12:24pm
Mark Field (mail):

One of Samuel Johnson's stated objectives in compiling and publishing the first all-encompassing dictionary of English was "to prevent the further degeneration of the English language".


IIRC, Johnson did start with that goal but later changed his mind and took a descriptivist position.
7.24.2007 12:29pm
Obelisk18 (mail):
Interesting post. You're right that speaking "old English", is unlikely to be useful in any meaningful way. But, I still think my central point (which you didn't reproduce here) holds. Language is a set of symbols, signs, or sounds used to communicate ideas to someone else. Therefore, there's an essential value in language having commonality, and by extension, stability.

As I noted, if my language has nothing in common with yours, we can't communicate. If language doesn't strive to create commonality, if not between particular individuals, then at least as a general idea, then it simply isn't language. And if the language we're using to communicate today, changes for one of us, tomorrow, then we're not doing a very good job of carrying out one of the central purposes of language: creating a system through which people can communicate.

So perhaps, it doesn't make sense to adhere closely to the original conception of English. And perhaps there's no "inherently best" English. But, surely, if we accept the above, there are "inherently better" ways of speaking, not only for us as individuals, but for the broader goal of preserving a system people can use to actually communicate. So to revise my argument, one particular dialect is "inherently better", when it adheres more closely to what most people meant by English yesterday.
7.24.2007 12:42pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
BChurch: Genetic evolution is a good example. Sometimes we want to create some new lifeform, for therapeutic or research or other reasons. In that case, let's speed up evolution! Heck, let's do outright manipulation to invent our new lifeforms! Sometimes we're concerned about possible dire consequences. In that case, don't hurry the process. It's inevitable so it's useless to try to stop it, but at least don't help it along.

It seems to me this process requires a sense of what you're trying to achieve and what consequences you're trying to avoid. Some people, the anti-biotech crowd for instance, take a "don't tinker with nature" approach and defend currently existing forms -- or the process by which those forms developed as long as it doesn't arise from human meddling -- or as long as it doesn't arise from technological human meddling.

But I laugh at these people, unless they have some argument for why the currently existing biological forms, or why the process minus human meddling, is better -- preferably an argument based in expectations about bad consequences or something along those lines.
7.24.2007 12:42pm
liberty (mail) (www):

For instance, it’s plausible that one of two dialects, both of which are posing as "English", ought to be preferred (or thought "inherently good"), because it’s closer, in various ways, to what was originally meant by the word "English".


I think we should try this experiment, though. It is reasonable. So which of these:

"The potential for a dealer's exit to adversely affect mortgage hedgers is dependent upon hedgers' diversification of counterparties, the way in which hedgers use options, and the underlying reason for such an exit."

Or

"Hey!
mr.wipe down in dis biatch down ya heard me Foxx-a-million
This one be the reeemix!
Badazz, Savage life, Foxx-a-million
Man you already know what it is ya heard me
We still on, we still ridin on chrome, we still pullin up "

is closer to:
"Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum"

Granted, the three aren't saying the same thing, but we could still give it our best effort. What do you think?
7.24.2007 12:45pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Obelisk18: Now we're agreeing! By the way, the reason I didn't reproduce that part of the argument is simple: I think your historical argument, as I've explained in the post, is bad. However, this argument is fine.

The only thing I disagree about is how you call it "inherently" better. As I've said in this post and the previous one, there are better ways of speaking, which relate to the goals you want to achieve. If you want to communicate with other people around you, you should speak what they speak. If you want to communicate clearly, you should speak clearly. Sometimes these goals are in conflict, like if the most widely used and recognized form is, sadly, too vague.

But you have to have a goal in mind. Communication is one such goal, and once you specify it, we can talk about "objectively" better ways of achieving that goal -- which is very different from "inherently" better ways of speaking (which doesn't specify a goal, but just goes on the supposed "inherent" value).

And this still leaves open the possibility of violating any rule you like as long as it furthers the goal, speaking different dialects and differently-"educated" versions of English to different audiences, and even saying things that don't further communication if your goal is not to be directly communicative.
7.24.2007 12:47pm
jimbino (mail):
Attention to language is especially useful in speed dating. In my 30 seconds with Sasha, for example, I could quickly brand her as just another woman whose speaking informs her thinking, rather than the other way around. That quick assessment would save us both a lot of time, which I'm sure she appreciates as well.
7.24.2007 12:51pm
Kovarsky (mail):
the darwinian selection metaphor is so inapt it's hard to know where to start, although here's 2 tries:

(1) dialects (traits) do not compete on a level playing field. language has network effects, and dialects that are socially sub-optimal may be preferred by a population simply because a lot of people already speak them. language is path-dependent in this respect, and it's difficult to characterize a process with this sort of path-dependency as having arrived at anything optimal in a darwinian sense.

(2) when confronted with a new dialect (trait), what do we do? has it appeared BECAUSE it is an evolutionarily superior trait, or should it be ERADICATED because evolutionarily inferior traits should not be promoted? i doubt there's any clear answer.
7.24.2007 12:54pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

From Dawkins (1976), chapter 11:

"The analogy between cultural and genetic evolution has frequently been pointed out, sometimes in the context of quite unnecessary mystical overtones. The analogy between scientific progress and genetic evolution by natural selection has been illuminated especially by Sir Karl Popper. I want to go even further into directions which are also being explored by, for example, the geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, the anthropologist F. T. Cloak, and the ethologist J. M. Cullen."

"The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme* If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:'... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.* When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking—the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'"

I would post more, but first of all it would be annoying, and secondly it would violate Richard Dawkins' copyright.
7.24.2007 1:11pm
jimbino (mail):
Kovarsky, your assessment is quite right, but what you fail to mention is that a speaker so challenged in grammar as Sasha will have her ear so attuned to improper agreement in number that she will be incapable of using correct grammar, even in those cases where it is needed for clarity.

I can just see her as an RN telling the doc, "When the Volokh's bring their kid in, put them under and do the circumcision right away."
7.24.2007 1:14pm
bittern (mail):

Attention to content should not be underrated. I think jimbino should try dating more men.
7.24.2007 1:17pm
BChurch (mail):
Kovarsky,

Are you saying that biological evolution is not path dependent in a similar way? I was always under the impression that biological evolution was very path dependent-- humans couldn't evolve from having "camera" eyes to compound eyes, because the accidental coincidences of our early evolution set us on a path that, after a point, couldn't be changed incrementally except by hurting one's chances for survival.

In any case, my point was not to suggest that language evolution and biological evolution are exactly the same in every way. It was just to suggest that in both language and biological evolution, pressures for conformity exist (ie., building an embryo should follow a certain plan, 5 fingers, 5 toes, etc.), as do natural mutations. Sometimes a mutation will not only overcome the initial pressure for conformity, but actually become widespread and successful enough to benefit from the pressure itself. The mutation becomes the norm.

Really-- and this is something Prof. Volokh touched on above-- it's an argument for descriptivism as a functionalist approach, where survivability depends on ease of communication, maybe emotional resonance, ease of pronunciation, etc. I suppose that's what would be "optimal in a darwinian sense"-- as in biological evolution, long term survivability.
7.24.2007 1:17pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

Point is, the analogy with evolution isn't so bad. I, for one, have heaps of suboptimal (or at least useless) parts in my body, from tonsils, to a tail bone, to my appendix. Path dependency is a central part of evolution.
7.24.2007 1:17pm
liberty (mail) (www):
jimbino,

you have such obvious insight into who Sasha is, its truly amazing.
7.24.2007 1:27pm
Rubber Goose (mail):

Attention to content should not be underrated. I think jimbino should try dating more men.


Ha, Bittern. I was going to post something snarky in response to jimbino, but you said it much more cleverly and succintly than I would have.
7.24.2007 1:36pm
pgepps (www):
For what it's worth: 'Englisc' referred to the language of the 'Angelcynn' or Angle-folk before 'English' was used of the people (mixed Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) overrunning Britain.

We call the language clump from which English dervies 'Anglo-Saxon' before the migration to Britain, or on the Continent; and 'Old English' after the migration and in Britain.

The dialect of 'Old English' we speak derives mostly from the East Saxon as it came to be spoken near London, though Elizabethan English has a mixture of Northern and Southern inflections (hence 'eth' and 'est' interchangeable); but the literature, including your quotation above, survives from West Saxon writing, mostly 9th to 12th century.

And we are not so Norman as all that. While it is true that about half our vocabulary is from the French-speaking Vikings, that is uptake *into* the English matrix. Structural words and what remains of our inflection system are all English; and it is possible to speak functionally in an almost entirely English-cognate MnE parallel with a more Norman-derived one, and then double it in Latin, for good measure; social context determines our preferences:

a) I like to eat good food.
b) I prefer to dine upon excellent cuisine.
c) I voluntarily masticate prime victuals.

The Latin and the French are, of course, harder to extricate than the English from either.

And don't forget the non-French speaking Vikings, the Danes! Prominent for influencing the Yorkshire dialect, and for introducing a glut of words like "gloom" "mud" "moor" and similarly dismal g/m sounds. :-)

Cheers,
PGE
7.24.2007 2:01pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
jimbino: (1) For the record, I know these grammatical rules that people argue about. I'm not ignorant of them, I'm just insouciant: I use them when they serve me and not when they don't. In fact, I believe most people should be aware of the "rules" (to use them in contexts where people, for whatever reason, rational or irrational, care), but violate them whenever necessary, that is, when they're unclear, inelegant, or otherwise inappropriate for the occasion.

(2) Some commenters have stated this obliquely, but note for the future that I'm, as they say, a dude.
7.24.2007 2:32pm
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
Sasha, along those lines:

I have some friends who are high school English teachers. Their credo, if you will, is that students are students are permitted to break the rules of language, but only after they have proven their proficiency in those same rules.
7.24.2007 2:35pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
The point in my post below is: Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals, regardless whether it follows anybody's stated rule.


Oddly enough, one of my goals is to encourage the use of language in such a way as to enable speakers and readers of that language to communicate with one another. Setting a good example can further that goal. Common grammar and vocabulary can help ensure that people (and machines!) communicate clearly and without misunderstanding. Subsets of a language -- dialects, variants, mutations, neologisms, slang, argot, jargon, et cetera -- can be useful, appropriate to specific circumstances, and even esthetically delightful ... but if the speaker's subset doesn't overlap the listener's subset, communication's gonna be a bitch.

To those who see evolution in action: remember that more mutations to an organism's genome are harmful or lethal than favorable. (By the way, Google returns 153 citations for "memeome" ... I wonder whether it will catch on?)

Sasha, was the title of this post a deliberate play on another controversial topic occasionally discussed in the Conspiracy?
7.24.2007 4:44pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Mike G: I don't disagree with anyone you've said. My and Eugene's pet peeve about various supposed "rules" of the English language is that people throw them about without making any argument that they enhance clarity or communication. Moreover, some purists' critiques go exactly the other way -- some neologism has caught on and is well understood by everyone, but it's supposedly wrong because it's a neologism.

I believe in clear communication and in setting a good example, which is why I end sentences with prepositions or split infinitives whenever I feel that would serve clarity and simplicity. I don't respect the which/that distinction. I don't use "since" only for the temporal or only for the causal sense. I don't insist on putting "on the one hand" before every "on the other hand." I use "everyone... they." In speech and in informal writing, I usually avoid "whom."

I do this not despite the need to set an example, but because I want to set an example.
7.24.2007 5:56pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
And yes, you have it right about the title.
7.24.2007 5:56pm
TechieLaw (mail) (www):

I don't respect the which/that distinction.


I've been told that I'm an excellent writer and I have never understood this distinction or its purpose.
7.24.2007 8:53pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I understand the distinction. And I understand that it can in principle clarify stuff. But you can do the same better and more easily with commas. Therefore, I reject it.
7.24.2007 11:09pm