Sunday, September 03, 2006

War of Words

It's all kicking off between David Crystal (language guru) and Lynne Truss (lover of apostrophes) in today's Observer. Attacking Truss's "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" made famous in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Crystal accuses Truss of "linguistic fundamentalism".

For those of you unfamiliar with Truss and her work, Eats, Shoots and Leaves laments the sorry understanding English users have of their own system of grammar and punctuation. Truss explains the "rules" as she sees them and tries to educate her readers about things like the "grocer's apostrophe" (often seen on signs in markets advertising banana's and apple's) and the possessive apostrophe (the man's hat). It has become a best-seller which either tells you lots about how eager we are to learn more about grammar, or how sad we are for not knowing what else to buy Aunty Mildred for Christmas...

Anyway, back to the battle between Crystal and Truss. In the article, Crystal is quoted as saying "Zero tolerance does not allow for flexibility. It is prescriptivism taken to extremes. It suggests that language is in a state where all the rules are established with 100 per cent certainty. The suggestion is false. We do not know what all the rules of punctuation are. And no rule of punctuation is followed by all of the people all of the time".

Interestingly, one of Crystal's other targets, John Humphrys of Radio 4, responds by saying "'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?".

What Humphrys seems to miss is the fact that many of these rules are little more than the prejudices of language "experts" in the Eighteenth Century whose ideas gained credibility once they were written down and widely circulated. They're not rules that are set in stone for any logical reason; although some would argue that a few of these rules are there to avoid confusion in communication.

For more on this debate, have a read of the article and search for Aitchison as a key word in the tool bar at the top of this page. You might also want to have a look at the Michael McCarthy articles linked here or here. Or have a look at the previous debates sparked by Lynne Truss's book here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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