Is there such a thing as a crime against English? Or are some of us just too pedantic for our own good?
I’ve been thinking about this again after reading Cathy Relf’s ‘Rantings of a sub-editor’ blog, in which she debates whether some ways of writing (or speaking) can be described as ‘wrong’.
She says: ‘You can have formal, standard or style-guide compliant styles, and you can have colloquial, slang or pidgin variations, but language is rarely wrong. Unless you’re misunderstood by almost everyone, almost all of the time. Then, perhaps, you’re doing it wrong.’
My first inclination was to agree. Then I remembered that my blog is called Crimes against English, and for a reason.
When I started grammar school we studied, well, grammar. In my first year we had a textbook that had exercises with names like ‘What’s wrong with this sentence?’ (I found these fun and interesting, which was probably a clue that I should become an editor when I grew up.)
By the time I got to university, things had changed: we were taught that there is no such thing as incorrect language, just inappropriate language. The theory was that usage decides what is acceptable.
Taking this approach, I’d agree with Cathy’s distinction between formal and colloquial language. I’d even agree that it’s probably not worth trying to save the ‘correct’ meaning of ‘disinterested’ from extinction.
But I wouldn’t agree that there’s no such thing as ‘wrong’ when it comes to written English. Not just because I’d be out of a job if that were true, but because we’d all be the poorer if we lost the ability to use the right word in the right place.
Does it matter, for example, that a restaurant review uses the phrase ‘cleansing your pallet’? I think it does. And not just because ‘cleansing your palate’ is a cliché.
It’s not about getting the spelling wrong: it’s about getting the word wrong. Yes, it’s easy to get your homophones mixed up, particularly when writing in a hurry. It’s even easier to laugh at someone else when they do that.
But it still matters. It’s about having an understanding of where words come from and how they fit in.
You don’t necessarily need to know that ‘palate’ comes from the Latin for the roof of the mouth and ‘pallet’ from the word for ‘spade’. But if you remember that the word ‘palate’ is related to the word ‘palatable’, then you know that it’s connected to taste – not a wooden platform for moving goods. And if you can make those connections, you have an instinct for words that helps you to use the right one.
If, instead, you go for the first word that comes to mind, then you’re not respecting words. And in my book, that is a crime.