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Language rules prop up culture

By Liz Tynan - posted Thursday, 31 August 2006

My name is Liz and I am a pedant. It has done nothing for my popularity, though it has given me a reputation for eccentricity that I don't mind too much. My students find it annoying or a source of anxiety, though a surprising number of them write to me after they have started working as journalists to say they are glad that I was rigid with their use of language because now they are able to make themselves understood and this has improved their career prospects.

Language pedants are generally hated and the word pedantry is a term of abuse. It conjures in people's minds shrunken, solitary people in hand-knitted grey cardigans, with gimlet eyes and mean mouths, pens poised ready to write furious letters exposing misplaced apostrophes. Such people do in fact exist and they don't really do that much harm, except to themselves.

There is another kind of pedant who takes on the epithet proudly, much as gay people adopted the derogatory word queer, in defiance of the stereotype and because it can be useful to catch people's attention by bending an insult.


At what point did we decide that learning the foundations of English wasn't important, wasn't interesting enough, wasn't relevant? Have carpenters stopped learning how to hammer nails? I don't have any inside knowledge of education policy and curriculum development; that's up to others to analyse. All I know is that my standard government-school education in the late 1960s and early '70s taught me to structure a sentence properly and to parse it adequately so at least I could understand what each word was doing.

It was no-frills but it gave me the basics. Very soon after I went through school, those basics were scrapped. I have seen further deterioration in the nine years or so that I have been teaching. I have had bright young students ask me to explain what nouns and verbs are because they have not heard the terms before.

This is not the fault of the students. By the time I see them, when they begin their university studies in journalism, many have not been shown how to write a grammatical sentence. Sometimes they resent having to take the time to learn. They should have learned when they were eight, not 18.

I am not among those who believe that English has to be protected in some sort of metaphorical museum, guarded from progress. I would prefer to draw a distinction between the (creative) evolution of the language and the (destructive) erosion of the language. I am fascinated by the way our language evolves, a process that enhances nuance and subtlety. But I am appalled by erosion, which turns language to mush and diminishes our capacity to create meaning.

It is an old-fashioned notion these days, but out-and-proud pedants are interested in standards. Standards matter. As that great exponent of clear English writing, Clive James, once wrote, if you lose the language, you lose everything. Certainly this statement has a rhetorical flourish, but there is a lot of truth in it. I would even suggest that it goes to the heart of who we are as people.

A fluke of evolution has given humans the capacity for language. Whatever whistles and clicks and grunts other creatures use to communicate with each other, miraculous as these are themselves, only humans form words, sentences, paragraphs and from these books, journal articles, newspaper columns and the more dubious benefits of slogans and video-recorder instruction manuals.


Each language element has behind it a wealth of complex abstract thinking that falls under the title and the concept of semantics. Our capacity for language is one of the defining characteristics of humanness; it is one of the reasons we can't just see ourselves simply as naked apes, essentially the same as our simian relatives. We are different; we have language.

We have the capacity (not always realised) for ethics and morals. We have choices about how to behave and not just a set of base instincts to follow. We can speculate, verbally, about the past and future, and consider the concept of death.

This capacity has given us belief systems as well, another human characteristic, and probably an inevitable consequence of the abstract thinking essential for language. Language is the primary way by which we project from our internal, subjective world into the wider external world. That bridge between the inner and outer worlds is tenuous and has any number of potential barriers and pitfalls. Imprecise language use is one of them. Abusing semantics by, for example, detaching meaning from words is downright dangerous. In these dangerous times we need to be clear about what we mean.

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First published in The Australian on August 23, 2006.

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About the Author

Liz Tynan came out as a pedant several years ago and encourages others to do the same. She teaches journalism at James Cook University in Townsville in north Queensland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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