Comments and clarifications on my post ‘Of language, clothes, and dangerous activities for boys’

As my blog posts all feed into Facebook, people often comment there rather than here. I got a few comments on my recent post Of language, clothes, and dangerous activities for boys, which I’ll reproduce here for the benefit of people not on Facebook (though I’ve edited out the names in case people get annoyed). I’ve also added a few clarificatory comments at the end.

Commenter a:

me not can believe serious you be being. doing be you what when language a learning you be?

ultimately, every discourse has its own field, tenor and mode and if you fail to engage the other within them you will be face-controlled, much as you would be if you turned up at a black-tie party in bermuda shorts and a hawaiian shirt. As such, anything done outside of the rules of engagement would be deemed a mistake.

Commenter b:

I broadly agree, and I like the analogy. I am not sure, though, that there are all that many cases where we are bound by no constraints whatsoever. Using ‘between you and I’ is basically fine, but I don’t take the argument here to imply a total carte-blanche relativism.

When people describe something as ‘wrong’ it can sound absolutist, but it is perhaps better understood as making reference to criteria which are assumed to apply universally or almost-universally. Usually we can take for granted that the needs to be understood, to communicate information effectively and precisely imply some restrictions on how we ought to speak.

Going out in Newcastle in a t-shirt in December is something that lots of people do, and in one sense that is fair enough. But there is also quite a strong sense in which this is the ‘wrong’ thing to wear, i.e. by reference to one of the main purposes behind clothing – to keep us warm.

Grammar pedants who would like to invoke something like this all to justify ‘correct’ usage should also note that applying these criteria (usefulness, precision, intelligibility) consistently, has led me to use the scotch ‘yous’ plural second person.

Commenter c:

“Language is as its speakers use it.”

thanks, gareth! can you please publish this in parenting magazines all over the world? i hate language nazis who hypercorrect their kids because their language is wrong. (although i don’t particularly appreciate ‘between you and i’ – not as a learner of english🙂 …).

i’ve always been amazed at this particular sg+pl disagreement in english. does that only work with contracted forms? or only with ‘there’?!

And my replies:

Thanks commenter c:)

To Commenter a: I think you may be missing my point. When I learn a language like Russian, my chief aim is to learn to speak as Russian people do. Given that, I would be making a mistake to use Russian in a way that Russian speakers don’t use it (although I accept that such mistakes are inevitable). In terms of the analogy: if I want to look Russian in the way I dress, I am making a mistake if I dress in a way that Russian people don’t dress. Your second point is, I think, precisely the point I’m making: you can be mistaken in your use of language, but only in the way that you can be mistaken in your use of dress.

So I also agree with you, Commenter b. Inasmuch as it’s wrong to wear a t-shirt in Newcastle in the winter, it can be wrong to use a particular construction in a particular linguistic environment. I thought that’s what I was saying in the post.

I apologise if I implied there are situations with no constraints. I see how you could read it that way, but it’s not what I intended. I meant ‘no specific constraints’ in the sense of specific instructions (like style guides or dress codes). There are indeed almost always constraints of some sort.

Anyway, I’m certainly not implying carte-blanche relativism. A key point of my post is that it is possible to be wrong in one’s use of language. But this is ‘wrong’ in the sense that you can be wrong in your choice of clothes. That’s the take-home message.

‘Between you and I’, in other words, is not ‘always wrong’; but it can be wrong, or mistaken, or at least a bad idea, in certain contexts. And it’s very much a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. In certain (admittedly very restricted) contexts, therefore, it may even be better than ‘between you and me’.

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