Sunday, September 7, 2008

Clarity and the English language

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post and Press, September 2.)

MY FATHER was an engineer. He loved the precision, order and logic of mathematics. But as he grew older an interesting thing happened: words displaced numbers as the objects of his admiration. Always a keen reader, he became captivated by the English language.

It’s not so strange, when you think about it. The English language is a precision instrument, so you’d expect it to appeal to an engineer. It has been refined over centuries to the point where there’s an exact word or phrase to describe almost everything; and if there isn’t, we pinch one from another language. But the marvel of English is that it’s also constantly expanding, not only borrowing words from other cultures but inventing new ones.

For all these reasons the English language deserves to be treated with the greatest respect, which is why it irritates me when I see journalists habitually misusing words. The job of journalists is to convey meaning precisely and accurately, so they have a particular duty to use words correctly. In a sense they are guardians of the language – or should be.

But it irritates me even more when academics, who are teaching the next generation, encourage their pupils to abuse the language. I have already sounded off in this column about the Victoria University lecturer who suggested we drop apostrophes because they were (a) too hard and (b) a tool of class oppression, so I won’t go there again. Now I see that a British academic has revived the old argument that we shouldn’t bother with correct spelling.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement (and how ironic is that?), criminologist Ken Smith argued that teachers should give up correcting students’ bad spelling and accept “variant spellings” as long as the meaning is clear.

Apart from giving me one more reason to wonder about men named Ken, this strikes me as an excuse for laziness and lack of rigour. The language is the starting point of all scholarship because it’s how we convey ideas and information, and academics of all people should demand precision and accuracy.

Clarity is the essence of good communication. Fuzzy use of the language all too easily disguises fuzzy thinking – which I suspect is why some academics see it as in their interests to promote the dumbing-down of English.

* * *

THOSE IN the Wellington commentariat who are eager to write off Winston Peters should listen to talkback radio. They would get a sharp reality check.

On the night Mr Peters was stood down last week, a steady procession of Radio Live callers declared their undying faith in the New Zealand First leader. Mr Peters could grow horns, fangs and a tail and he would still fill halls with nodding grey heads. He could appear on stage waving a dismembered baby on a spear and it would still be a media frame-up. ACT leader Rodney Hide, on the other hand, will never convince these people that he’s anything other than an organ-grinder’s monkey for sinister, shadowy Big Business figures who want to get their hands on pensioners’ Kiwibank savings accounts.

Okay, so this was Radio Live – the former Radio Pacific. We’re talking about a station whose listeners keep the snake oil industry in business, who swear that magnetic mattresses cure their arthritis and who entertain each other with piano accordion solos played down the phone line at three in the morning. They probably drape garlic plants around their front doors to ward off vampires.

But here’s the scary thing about democracy: these people have votes, and Mr Peters needs only one vote in 20 to get back into Parliament. Have a nice day.

* * *

THE WELLINGTON commentariat fails to understand the Peters phenomenon for the same reason that it often gets other things wrong about politics. The explanation is simple.

Professional political observers in the capital are well informed about the Wellington end of politics: the policy, the legislation, the personalities, the off-the-record briefings and the myriad undercurrents and rumours that constantly swirl around Parliament. They live and breathe it seven days a week. But Wellington is only 50 percent of what politics is about. The other 50 percent is what ordinary people – the people who elect governments – make of it out in the real world. And here the commentariat is fatally flawed, because it’s hopelessly ill-equipped to tap in to what ordinary voters outside the goldfish bowl of Wellington are thinking.

This explains why opinion poll results often take commentators by surprise, as when recent findings indicated National had not been greatly damaged by the leaked tapes controversy. The commentators, caught up in the political drama surrounding the leaks, expected the poll results to reflect their own excitement – but the electorate at large obviously regarded the leaked tapes saga as a non-event.

The obvious lesson is that if you want to understand what’s really happening in politics, ask someone from Waipukurau.


stephen said...

"The obvious lesson is that if you want to understand what’s really happening in politics, ask someone from Waipukurau. "

Assuming your 50% breakdown holds true, that's only good advice for members of the commentariat. People from Waipukurau need to get their missing 50% from the commentariat.

Truth Seeker said...

I spend most of my day on the phone talking to people all over Australasia. There are those who speak English well and there are those who appear to function on the 3,000-word version some have referred to as "Basic".

Language is often a function of what we exposed to. We learn the words we need to describe the things we see, feel and think. If we see little, feel not much and think less....then our vocabulary will reflect that. You might say that a person's command of language - any language - in an inventory if their life's experience.

If language competency is suffering, perhaps it is because too many people experience too little and therefore don't know how to talk about more than what they know: not much.

With that in mind, I'd like to see a linguist study the variety and frequency of words on talk-back radio.

Again with that in mind, I'd like to see the same thing done with respect to the metaphorical Waipukarau.

As for the tapes and their impact, the polls appear to have shifted at least 5%, narrowing the gap by roughly 10% overall. The tapes and the several other related incidents will have tweaked enough memories with respect to secret agendas to cause such a shift. National haven't done themselves any favours by reinforcing the impression of strong preferences stifled for electoral advantage. "Don't frighten the horses".

Looking at how the various parties are polling, if the gap should narrow by HALF as much again, we could well be looking at a Labour, Maori, Green, Progressive government.

Whether in the commentariat or not, people who are AWARE of it, take a dim view of a party saying one thing to get elected while preferring to do another.

We've been there before and we didn't like it. MMP was the result.

Vaughan said...

The other day I was reading the text on the Web site for the world Four Square championships (yes, that great game) and I saw the end of civilisation as we guardians of grammatical virtue know it.

"The Champs are open to the public to both play and spectate..."

Perhaps I had better adapt. It would help if I could "dialog" with somebody who could help me accept this new word.

Otherwise, I won't be brave enough to tell people I am off to spectate the All Blacks game.

But would I then be an inersent porn of the Americans?

Perhaps I should stick to Four Square, or take up trying to catch ghoti with my rod.

Gh as in cough, o as in women, ti as in motion. (Thank you, George Bernard Shaw.)