Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Don't be dogmatic

I'd like to make a point related to my post last week on punctuation punditry. It's about dogma. I don't like it, especially not when it's applied to language, or even to technical writing tools.

Being suspicious about language dogma isn't a permit for a free-for-all. Here's something from David Crystal's The Stories of English, where he is commenting on the English language outside the UK and the USA:

.. new standards are evolving [in other countries] too - varieties which are not identical to British or American English, but which are fulfilling the same role in providing educated people within the community with an agreed set of conventions to facilitate efficient and effective intelligibility.

I think that this is a useful definition for languages in general: " an agreed set of conventions to facilitate efficient and effective intelligibility". It allows the existence of many different sets of conventions, depending on the context - the language community for any given communication act or set of acts.

I subscribe to an email discussion list for copy-editors which this week discussed the phrases "bring to the boil" and "bring to a boil" in the context of recipe books. One of these expressions is the correct usage in the USA ("bring to a boil") and the other ("bring to the boil") is the correct usage in the UK. Neither is wrong in its own context. Clearly, UK recipe books and US recipe books each have their own set of conventions for intelligibility.

No comments: