Friday, 18 January 2008

Why "correctness" matters

Native speakers of English - or any other language - seem to know how to use their own language, and what is correct in language use, even without formal study of the rules of grammar. People just seem to know "what sounds right". Many very wise people have written about this at length and I wouldn't dare try and compete with Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker or David Crystal.

Sometimes, as languages grow and develop, confusing situations occur with different meanings or different rules for similar sounding words. While recognising that language changes, we try to pass on these more sophisticated usages as they are keys to subtle yet meaningful variations in our speech and writing. Those of us who love clarity and correctness (and I count myself amongst them) can be upset when distinctions are lost, and this week Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich eloquently bewailed the apparent loss of one distinct variation in usage. The particular distinction that bothered Schmich was the difference between "lie down" and "lay down". This is a distinction that I understood automatically, but I had to go to Michael Swan for a formal explanation. "Lay" means to put down carefully, says Swan, and takes an object. It has a regular form, but an awkward spelling in its past tense ("laid" not "layed"). "Lie", meaning to be or become horizontal, is an irregular verb, with the past tense "lay". It's easy to see how this may confuse some people.

The unhappiness that people like Schmich and I feel when distinctions are lost is not due to us being "old-fashioned", or "conservative", but because we believe that the variety that correct usage entails enriches language, while casual and thoughtless usage makes language poorer for all of us.

3 comments:

Jonathan Plutchok said...

Well said, David. I especially applaud your last sentence.

Scott said...

After reading that, I think I need to lie down and think about it (or is that lay down...). (grin)

Karen said...

For me, this post echoes what is happening in Denmark these days. Some universities want to (and do) provide a complete education conducted in the English language. Students in some field say this is perfect because their careers will be international, and they will need (good) English to have success in life. Danish will not be adequate, or may even be a barrier to any kind of advancement.

Some politicians then bewail the disappearance of Danish. (Universities do offer a parallel track in Danish, and many practical administrative matters are conducted in Danish. This is not satisfactory to the powers-that-be.)

I see the problem as something that occurs much earlier. Danes, in my opinion, do not take care of their language. Many leave it undernourished and shriveled by the wayside! As a foreigner to Denmark who has learned Danish and considers herself fluent, I had a difficult time finding ways to learn correct grammar. There were many classes about literature, but nowhere did I really get help in learning the simple building blocks of the language.

If language is lovingly taught in the primary schools, children can achieve a good mastery of their first language, which provides a solid foundation for further development in their own language as well as a good anchor when diving into new languages.

Of course, you said it all beautifully in your last sentence, but I just had to rant and ramble about politicians - and even guardians of the language - who do not truly look at the source of the problem.