Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Rules of the road

I am going to crosspost a post from a newsgroup, because I had a feast of self-love on writing it and I have, so to speak, orgasmed it into this blog. It's in reply to one of those fools who think that the "rules of grammar" and "dictionaries" are their enemies.

What are they [the formal rules of grammar]?

Here's a thing. People like you, Sue, and it's a great misfortune that there are a lot of you, work with the misconception that somewhere there's a committee that is imposing all these "rules" on us all, forcing us to comply with its idea of how English should be written. Well, there isn't. The "rules" of English are *how English works*. Dr Zen wearies of saying it, but it seems that the likes of you don't get it no matter how many times you read it. A noun is a noun because it's a noun, not because someone says it is. It's a noun because it's used as one in English sentences. "Cite" is not a noun not because there is a "formal rule" saying it isn't, but because it's not used as one. If it was, and if PJ keeps using it so, maybe it will come to be, then it would be one.

What you are ignorant of are two things. One, that the "rules" are not like the laws of a nation but more like the laws of nature. They describe how things work, not how they *must* work. No one is prescriptive about language in the fusty, old-fashioned way you insist they are. Two, that the rules must nevertheless be obeyed if you wish to communicate clearly. This is because you, I, Holly and PJ must abide by a shared set of rules so that we might understand one another.

Dictionaries express how words are used by the speakers of the language they are the dictionary of. They are not half as prescriptive as you think. They tell you what speakers of a particular language mean when they use a particular word. They work on a sort of principle of obeying the will of the majority, which you might think unfortunate. You might think that because you like to use "ragged" to mean "straight-edged", everyone ought to, and the dictionary is a vicious thug to wish to impose the opposite meaning on you, but indeed, it does not. You may use "ragged" in any way you please, and the rest of us will think you a little odd and sad, in much the same way we think of those guys who dye their hair pink and get a mohican, to look "different". We will continue to adhere to the meaning contained in the dictionary, because it expresses what *most of us* mean by it, which since most of us wish to be able to communicate with most of the rest of us, is good enough for us.


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