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Stephen Fry on Language

By Brian | October 26, 2010 | Share on Facebook

I like this very much, although I think loyal reader, Jason Bennion, will not be such a big fan. Or maybe I’ll be surprised…


Topics: Random Acts of Blogging | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Stephen Fry on Language”

  1. jason says at October 26th, 2010 at 1:52 pm :
    Interesting coincidence, since I just posted another of my little rants on serial commas. :)

    I have the utmost respect for Stephen Fry as an intellect, an actor, and a humorist — in short, I like the guy — but, as you have already imagined, I disagree with much of what he’s saying here. But then it is my profession to be a pedant, isn’t it?

    I think what Fry is not taking into account is the difference between a creative person who knows the rules and chooses to break them for creative reasons, and someone who doesn’t know the rules and breaks them out of ignorance. Or worse, because they just don’t care (which Fry accurately suggests, albeit snidely, is one of the reasons why people like me get incensed). There’s a big difference between a poet playing with language for artistic effect and fun, and some engineer or MBA mangling it because his expertise is in technology and not grammar. (Apologies to all the engineers and MBAs out there — some of you are excellent writers, but quite frankly, many are not.)

    Also, he’s flat-out wrong when he dismisses clarity as a valid argument in favor of following grammar rules. It’s really the only argument that matters, as far I’m concerned. I’ll grant what he says in his next sentence — that following the rules does not “demonstrate clarity of thought or intelligence of mind” — but there is no question in my mind that a properly composed and punctuated sentence is easier to read and understand — and thus more clear — than one which is not, and that clarity is a good thing. My own philosophy is that if any person of average intelligence could misunderstand what the author is trying to say, even if it could be argued that most people will get the point, then the sentence needs to be fixed. I’m not talking about something that’s deliberately ambiguous for artistic effect; again, poetry or metaphor is one thing. But plain, ordinary written discourse should be clear.

    IMHO, of course.

  2. Brian says at October 26th, 2010 at 3:16 pm :
    Jason – I take your point about good grammar being easier to understand than bad grammar. But that’s a generalizaton, not an axiom.

    To pick on the two examples Fry uses: the meaning of “Five items or less” is clear to everyone (i.e., no one think they mean “five items or some number of items that are collectively “less” in some way than the five items would have been). The same is true of prepositions that end sentences. “the best apple pie that I’m aware of” is just as clear as “the best apple pie of which I’m aware,” perhaps even more so to some people.

    I think his complaint isn’t so much to encourage people to use poor grammar, but to discourage people from criticizing writing simply because the grammar is poor. If something is written incorrectly and is unclear, then criticize it for being unclear. If it’s written incorrectly but is perfectly clear, then leave it alone and move on.

    This seems, to me, to jive with what you’re saying as well.

  3. Jeff Porten says at November 11th, 2010 at 2:32 pm :
    Well, take your last sentence. You could have omitted both commas and had the same meaning. So why did you include them? Because you were emphasizing “to me” with spoken pauses in a form of writing which is largely taken as a transcript of verbal communication.

    This is why I’m in favor of serial commas—99% of the time, you want a pause after the penultimate term in order to clearly set it off from the final item. Omitting the serial comma raises the question of whether the last two items are a matched pair: in “I made cheese, bologna, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches”, did you make four types of sandwich, or three? If you made three, the sentence is grammatically incorrect. If you made four, it’s technically correct according to the AP, but unclear in its meaning.

    But I do agree that it’s rarely useful to be pedantic about grammar. Language evolves, so it’s not in the least bit surprising that some people say Oh Emm Gee out loud. There’s also nothing wrong with that—so long as the speaker recognizes that it’s only appropriate for some audiences. You can say the same thing when I use the verbs “grep” and “grok” to describe my actions.

  4. Jeff Porten says at November 11th, 2010 at 2:34 pm :
    Addendum: from a podcast last week, the documented anecdote about when Noah Webster’s wife caught him with a maidservant in a state of mutual undress.

    “Noah!” she said, “I am surprised.”

    “No,” he replied. “I am surprised. You are astonished.”


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