Sunday, December 18, 2011

Language Police

Just a quick link to a good piece in yesterday's Guardian Weekend by Oliver Burkeman about attitudes to language mistakes, grammatical errors and other abuses.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unfriended for grammar fails

There's a good article here on ZDNet by Charlie Osborne about grammar, spelling and punctuation on social networking sites. She takes a look at how technology has been blamed for grammar failures, but how the fault might lie with how we teach English in schools.

While it's clearly important to teach grammar as part of secondary English, the problem lies in how we teach it. If it's just a dry naming of parts with little sense of what the effects of grammar choices are then we're probably doomed to the nightmare back to the future scenario that Simon Heffer (and his chum, Michael Gove) longs for.

One problem is that many of the gripes about grammar that are often brought up are either matters of taste, rather than "rules" which affect how we actually understand one another, so one person's error is another person's normal usage. That's not to excuse basic errors like you're/your, their/there (which bug me, even though I'm what Heffer would probably call a trendy-lefty linguist).

One explanation for such errors is that in a time of much higher basic literacy rates than ever before, we're seeing more and more people using forms of communication like Facebook, Twitter and texting than we would ever have known before, and while basic literacy is higher, not everyone is as highly educated as those who wrote for public consumption in the past.

So while the footballer, Joey Barton tweets about his interest in Noam Chomsky and Euroscepticism to about one million followers, you'd have needed decades of formal education and a university degree to communicate with that many people in 1870 or 1950.

Not surprising really, because a footballer like Joey Barton generally talks with an educated right foot (and in Barton's case, the occasional headbutt) rather than an educated lexicon. And as a follower of Barton on Twitter and admirer of his genuine interest in exploring the world of knowledge - not something footballers are well known for - I don't mean to criticise or patronise him in any way, but when you look at the history of language, working class men like Barton have rarely had such a public platform for their words.

It's an argument that also links with Joshua Foer's piece in the New York Times in which he looks at how our reading habits have changed from "intensive" knowledge of a limited range of books to "extensive" reading of many texts, including books, newspapers and text messages. And as more and more people write and text in English around the world, perhaps the centrifugal force that has previously bound English usage to the core values of Standard English begins to lose its power, with more and more mis-spellings and grammatical errors circulating, growing in influence and perhaps changing the language beyond recognition. A doomsday scenario for Standard English, or the natural evolution of a growing language?


Thursday, December 08, 2011

Small words that mean a lot


When we talk about controversial words on this blog, most of them are “big words”: ones loaded with connotations and steeped in contentious history, such as the dreaded n-word (nigger, not nincompoop), housewife, slut and mong. Fair enough, they can often be very controversial. But little words are also important and a couple of those little words – so and thank you – have come in for a bit of analysis of late.

Last week, Radio 4 took a look at how so is increasingly being used as a discourse marker. It’s also been looked at here and here. According to some suggestions, so is making the move from webpage to spoken discourse in the kind of text to talk style that has given us LOL and OMG as everyday spoken expressions.
Elsewhere, the changing face of British politeness was beingexplored by the Daily Mail, which – as you might imagine – saw a future of doom and rudeness (not to mention nasty illegal immigrants, sponging single mums and Americans) in the changing place of thank you in our popular politeness lexicon. 

The Daily Mail story wasn’t entirely new, as it was covered by The Daily Telegraph the year before, that time with a slightly different (but still rather spurious) “survey” into changing habits.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

emagazine English Language conference 2012

The second  emagazine English Language conference is now taking bookings and promises to be another really excellent event. We've booked a great line-up, with talks by David Crystal, Angela Goddard, Marcello Giovanelli and the head of Aston University's Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Tim Grant.

The conference blog is here and you can find out more about what we're putting on here on the English and Media Centre's conference page. Also, details of last year's fantastic conference can be found here if you're interested.