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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

As someone who has spent a lifetime writing for publication and who once taught in a university, I sometimes find myself being asked questions about proper English usage. On occasion I know the rule and maybe even the reasons behind it. Other times I have a sense of what is correct but find I am winging it when it comes to explanation. Still, it all matters to me. There are people who like to take apart and rebuild engines. I like to take apart and rebuild sentences.

What is correct in speech and writing is a matter of usage and idiom. To communicate you need shared assumptions. What’s usually defined as correct is what most educated people say or write: the rules of grammar are the assumptions held in common. But the way people talk changes with time and place and situation. There is the old joke about the clergyman helping out on a church building project, hitting his thumb with a hammer and mumbling, “Would a layman please say something appropriate.”

Language is, among other things, a form of behaviour. Often it is a way of placing ourselves socially. Clergymen are expected to be examples of propriety. Soldiers rebuilding a bridge under artillery fire aren’t. A classic joke about a soldier in battle involves a sentence in which a favourite English obscenity appears as every possible part of speech.

Young people tend to have linguistic tics and habits that express their high spirits and assert a link to their own community. The repetitive use of the word ‘like’ is a contemporary example, that little cluster of phonemes whirling and twittering through youthful conversation like a flock of starlings at sunset.

Is it wrong? Well, it would be wrong for me, a more-or-less dignified old fellow, to take up the behaviour of a sixteen-year-old, but for young people this is an appropriate gesture, asserting membership in their generation.

What is awkward and ugly, though not uncommon, to call such people ‘youth’ or worse, ‘the youth’. Why wrong? Because ‘youth’ has a long history of idiomatic use as a singular abstract noun describing a period of human development. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” goes the line of Shakespeare. The word’s misuse leads to statements that sound both pretentious and empty.

Language has many uses, and there are different sets of rules at play in different kinds of speech. The use of language to create an impression of events (call it the descriptive or artistic use of language) requires imagination. Poets play games with the rules. However the use of language to give instruction requires precision, an obedience to accepted standards so that the information communicated is accurate and comprehensible. Think of those sheets of instructions that come with a new device telling you how to assemble it and written by someone whose trade is not writing and whose first language may be Cantonese or Hungarian.

At least once I have found myself reading instructions to accompany a medical procedure and finding that the words didn’t really tell me all I needed to know. Giving complex instructions is a difficult business. Texts of this sort require what I like to call the Martian treatment. The person writing or editing needs to imagine that the text is to be read by an intelligent Martian, someone, that is, who is smart enough but knows nothing. The expert always knows too much and so takes things for granted, often failing to answer urgent questions, being unable to imagine those questions being asked.

In such contexts any deviation from standard English will tend to increase the confusion or distrust. Significant communication requires language that is clear and idiomatic. The colloquial outburst that evokes what you did on Friday night isn’t suitable for describing what you are hired to do on Monday morning.

So is it all right to say … ?

Well maybe. And maybe not.

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