A Changing View of Language

A Changing View of Language

I’m selective when it comes to slang; some words I take an instant dislike to, others grow on me. Who remembers rad from the 80’s? Does anybody still use the word to mean excellent? My brother and his friends picked it up very quickly at the time but I always hated it – an abbreviation and slang. Never! I will speak properly, thank you very much. Yes, I was more than a little pedantic as a child when it came to language and its usage.

Some aspects of that persist to this day. I make an effort to use specific words to convey nuanced meaning. I often feel frustrated when I am unable to recall the word for a particular concept. And, as I might have mentioned in an earlier post, I have been known to correct spelling and grammar on notices and suchlike. Obvious errors such as their/there, its/it’s and misplaced punctuation.

Spelling and grammar were drummed into me at school; I developed a view of the English language (the Queen’s English as it was named in several books) as having One True Way that was fixed and inviolate for all time. Grammar was a set of rules that formally defined sentence structure and, of course, rules must never be broken.

What happened between then and now? I slowly came to understand that this codification of language was incomplete and (shock!) not completely accurate. That wasn’t all: I also began to harbor the heretical belief that these rules obscured the truth that any language in current use is not static, that it is changing and evolving. The language is what people are using every day, not some idealized model locked away in a dusty tome.

So now I have reached the stage where I consider language to be a tool. The once-sacrosanct rules of grammar are now just a set of guidelines, advisory rather than prescriptive. The purpose of language is to transmit information, to allow one person to move an idea from inside their own head into the heads of other people. Accuracy is important – I want others to see the same mental pictures as I do, and to achieve this requires following the conventionally-understood meanings of words and phrases.

Spelling and grammar are not unimportant – they fulfill the function of improving clarity and comprehension. Errors introduce noise that obscures the message. If there are multiple interpretations of what I write or say then my meaning becomes unclear. Following the accepted conventions of language usage makes the job of the reader or listener easier.

So I no longer feel uncomfortable when I begin a sentence with a preposition. I feel free to occasionally split my infinitives. Slavishly following grammatical rules actually harms clarity because the words do not flow as naturally. Spelling is another aspect – on this blog I tend towards American English spellings because they will be more familiar to the majority of my audience. I am equally comfortable with either variant. I mostly avoid slang and jargon terms because they may be unfamiliar to some people; likewise I try to avoid terms that mean different things in different variants of English. Always be aware of your audience.

Say what you mean. Sound natural. Be accurate, clear and concise. Like any tool, language must be wielded with a degree of skill. Part of that skill is an awareness of the boundaries, without which your meaning fractures into myriad facets, each reflecting a part of the original but combining into a kaleidoscopic confusion of possible messages.

A Bit Aspie

A Bit Aspie

I suppose, people being people, that other Aspies have tried to explain how the condition affects their functioning in some way, such as difficulty reading non-verbal signals, only to hear, “I, like, get that too, you know: maybe I’m a bit Aspergers.” Even after ignoring the involuntary wince that is triggered whenever language is tortured in my presence, I struggle to respond to that. While I don’t want to dismiss out of hand the possibility that they might be correct, it can be hard to explain how AS (and autism) are  about more than being awkward in social situations.

What I want to say to these people – but can’t because my AS makes it too difficult to formulate an adequate response without zoning out for too long and dropping out of the conversation – is that I doubt very much whether they do have AS. AS is not like a salad bar where you get to choose how much of each symptom you want. It’s not something I chose to have – I have it, live with it and cope with the challenges as best I can. Each symptom taken in isolation does not define the condition: it is called a pervasive disorder for a reason. It is a set of symptoms, usually with varying degrees of severity, and having AS means you pretty much got the lot.

What is “the lot”? To quote the Wikipedia article which summarizes the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria,

[…] a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.

This doesn’t even attempt to explain why these symptoms occur: it is just a “pattern” that recurs and has been labelled as Asperger Syndrome. The label is a convenience, nothing more, to cover the effects of particular cognitive differences. It does not describe the differences between individuals with AS, the varying degrees of difficulty we face in everyday situations. Couched in the most general terms it says nothing about how it feels from the inside – how exhausting it is to deal with “normal” life, to feel so often that we have to consciously act “normal” with other people so that we are not seen as alien, to face censure for “inappropriate” behavior when we don’t conform to their “normal” standards.

I doubt that any sighted person would describe themselves as “a bit blind” because they close their eyes occasionally. Likewise, they are not “a bit Aspie” because they sometimes feel awkward in social situations or have a fanatical interest in, say, football. There is evidence that the Aspie label is somehow becoming seen as “cool” – I can’t understand why this should be so, because I know first-hand that the reality is that even in a mild form it causes significant difficulties for those directly affected, and also indirectly for those such as partners in relationships.

Correcting People’s Mistakes

Correcting People’s Mistakes

I have an involuntary urge to jump in and correct people when I notice errors in what they say. It hasn’t escaped my notice that this often irritates the person I correct, but I have a hard time checking the impulse.

I’m not sure whether the cause of this is pedantry, perfectionism or simply attention to detail. Too much attention to detail sometimes because I end up getting distracted from the conversation by concentrating on the mistake. Interrupting the speaker to correct them also tends to distract them from what they were saying, halting the conversation.

Thing is… I’m trying to be helpful when I correct people. Accuracy is important to me – more important than saving somebody’s feelings – and I subconsciously expect that other people feel the same and would appreciate my efforts. Publicly correcting people can engender a hostile response – it embarrasses them, triggering a defensive reaction. In conjunction with my social anxiety, fear of this kind of response prevents me from speaking up in front of strangers. But it doesn’t prevent me feeling very uncomfortable about the error.

It’s the same with errors in writing – things like shop signs that might have spelling or grammatical mistakes. I have been known to take a pen and make editorial corrections to notices – the urge to do so can be impossible to suppress.

I find that people mistake my motivation – while I only strive for accuracy, they see me as a know-all who wants appear superior. They may even see me as arrogant. For the record, I’m not trying to impress people with my knowledge or make them appear ignorant and stupid. I just have an obsession for precision in language.