Of language, clothes, and dangerous activities for boys

Last Christmas, my fiancée gave me a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden. It’s a nice book, well bound and with a good collection of useful facts for inquiring minds (like descriptions of famous battles, information about the moon, and so on) and instructions about how to do things (like play rugby or make a bow and arrow). It’s a very nostalgic book, in terms of both content and packaging. The cover is based on Boy’s Own annuals from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It contains information about modern things too, however, like role-playing games and the channel tunnel.

Two things about it are a little irritating, however. As a few reviews on Amazon point out, the nostalgia seems to win out over the danger: it’s hard not to feel that this is more a book for Dads than boys. But, then again, that may be a mistaken impression; perhaps this book is the constant companion of young boys all over the country. I doubt it, but I think that, if it were, this would not be an especially bad thing. I was only really irritated when I turned to the section entitled ‘Understanding Grammar — Part One’. I shouldn’t have looked, I know. It’s such a small thing, but it rankles. Anyway, here’s the passage that got under my skin:

It’s strange how satisfying it can be to know right from wrong. Grammar is all about rules and structure. It is always ‘between you and me’, for example. If you hear someone say ‘between you and I’, it isn’t a matter of opinion, they’re just wrong.

Maybe most readers nod happily at that and admire the strength of character. I didn’t. This isn’t even especially a problem of this book in particular. It’s more to do with how most people think about language. I’ve been thinking about this recently, and it seems to me the best way to explain how things really are is like this:

You can be wrong in your use of language, but only in the same way that you can be wrong in how you dress.

In some cases, dress codes are very clearly defined. You’re told in advance what to wear for a particular function, and if you don’t do what the instructions say, then you can be considered to be wrongly dressed. If a wedding invitation dictates bermuda shorts and pink shirts with green ties, and you wear a morning suit, you are by most estimations wrongly dressed for that wedding, even if you’re correctly dressed for most weddings. In the same way, institutions that publish writing often have style guides and impose certain constraints on how people should write. If you don’t follow their requirements, you can’t really complain if they reject your work: their game, their rules.

But how about occasions where there are no specific constraints? In those cases, you have to make judgement calls, and dress in such a way that you achieve the effect you want to achieve. If you want people to think you’re posh when you go shopping, don’t wear a tracksuit and a baseball cap. If you want to fit in with the cool kids, dress like the cool kids (and if they all wear tracksuits and baseball caps, so should you). There is a danger here of course, which is just as relevant to language as to clothes: first, if you’re going to try to be like the cool kids, you’d better get it right; if you get it wrong, you’d have been better off not doing it in the first place. Second, even if you get it right, it may not work. If the cool kids don’t think of you as one of them, then dressing and talking like them may be taken more for what it is: trying to pass yourself off as one of them instead of actually being one of them.

Language is the same. A lot of English speakers say ‘Between you and I’. And they say so naturally. Why does the fact that Conn and Hal Iggulden don’t approve of the construction mean that other people are wrong to use it? Should everyone else dress like them too?

You might point out that the ‘Between you and I’ construction arose through hypercorrection: that people were attempting to be more correct, more like educated users of English, and failing. I agree that these people were making a mistake. It’s a bit like a man leaving his hat on in church because this seems more formal. But the mistake does not lie in anything inherent in the construction, or in the wearing of hats. The mistake lies in the person’s misapprehension of how to achieve what they’re trying to achieve. But that doesn’t mean that people who use the form and aren’t making this kind of assumption about its correctness are also in the wrong.

You might respond that in fact there is something inherently wrong with ‘between you and I’. After all, ‘between’ is a preposition, and prepositions are normally followed by ‘me’ not ‘I’. If you think that inconsistencies make your language wrong, and that a language is more correct the fewer rules you need to explain it, then fair enough. But it’s not a very easy position to maintain, particularly in the face of English spelling. For a more syntactic example, take a phrase like ‘a cup, a banana, and a knife’. This would normally go with ‘are’ rather than ‘is’. This seems clear enough: we’re talking about more than one thing. Then why do we say ‘There’s a cup, a banana, and a knife on the table’? This, moreover is pretty much standard. ‘There are a cup, a banana, and a knife on the table’ sounds unnatural to my ears. And I’m not going to change it to the form that seems unnatural to me and is, I’d wager, unnatural to most English speakers. It’s inconsistent to be sure, but there we are.

I’ll extend the clothes simile a little further: wouldn’t it be incorrect to wear your trousers on your head? Well, it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you think that’s how most people wear their trousers, then you’re mistaken. If you meant to put them on your legs, you’re also seriously mistaken (and perhaps ill). But if you happen to like doing so, and you’re not harming people, it’s hard to feel you’re actually doing anything really wrong. You’re just very eccentric. It’s equivalent, perhaps, to saying, ‘you and I between’. It’s likely to annoy other people, and you’d be doing them a courtesy not to do it, but it’s only wrong in that sense, in the sense that it’s a discourtesy. Not in the sense that ‘London is the capital of France’ is wrong. And ‘between you and I’ isn’t even wrong in the way that ‘you and I between’ is. It’s a very frequent variant, used by very many speakers of English, even if many other speakers don’t approve. It’s more like wearing jackets with jeans. Even if you don’t like this outfit, you’d be hard pressed to argue that it’s even discourteous in most everyday situations.

The thing is that there just isn’t an official set of rules of English that says how we should all use it. Even if there were, would we be wrong to flout those rules? Are people who don’t use French in the way L’Académie Française dictates wrong? Only inasmuch as people would be wrong to wear their own clothes in a state that insisted that its citizens wear a uniform. Language is as its speakers use it. To be sure, speakers are influenced by other speakers, and norms form just as they do in fashion. And, as in fashion, people write books and magazine articles about the best way to speak. And some people dress and speak in ways that are offensive or unhelpful to others. But between you and I is about as ‘just wrong’ as wearing the ‘wrong’ kind of trainers to school.

Admittedly, there are circumstances where that may be quite a dangerous activity for boys (and girls).

3 Comments

Filed under Language

3 responses to “Of language, clothes, and dangerous activities for boys

  1. I love the clothing analogy. I wish I'd thought of it years ago, when I was subjecting my every acquaintance to a diatribe on this very topic.

  2. A few comments and clarifications are to be found here.

  3. One of the older linguists, possibly Martin Joos but maybe not, says something somewher about how language change is as inexplicable as the appearance and disappearance of tail fins on automobiles and the rising and falling of miniskirt hemlines🙂 (inexplicable in the sense of unpredictable, i seem to think, rather than in any pejorative sense, but all from memory so apologies for vagueness)

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