The recent posting of several blogs here, variously around the topic of the abuse of the English language, set me thinking.
Were you to ask my nearest and dearest, they would confirm (with an unflattering alacrity) my willingness to point out language errors committed by those around me, irrespective of whether it is appropriate to do so or not. They might add that my tolerance-fuse is measured in millimeters and that my scathing dismissal is little short of linguistic excommunication. Which is to say, I have deep sympathy with these blogs.
In my recent spate of personal upheaval, the only aspect of writing I have been able to hang on to (by the shortest of chewed fingernails) is reading and critiquing other writers’ work. This means all I’ve been doing is consciously trying to find fault with every piece of writing I come across. Of course, we do this with our own writing, but ownership makes us fond and we (ahem, certainly I) have been known to pat and cherish a misbegotten piece of text when no-one in their right mind would think twice about putting it out of its misery.
Sometimes, it is frustrating. Being asked to critique certain pieces, I feel I am witnessing a blind person in a paddling ring setting out to swim the Atlantic. Occasionally ability and knowledge fall so far short of what the writer is trying to achieve that there seems to be little to say apart from “don’t quit the day job”.
Looking closer at the text, though, there is always a brighter side. However glaringly bad the mistake, or construct, I find that putting the reason it is wrong into words makes me think about my own mistakes of a similar nature. Is this really the way to fix it? Am I sure that’s the way it’s punctuated? Am I sure that is the rule in this situation? Why do I think whatever words I have suggested work better than what was written? Besides, who am I to impose an alien structure on authorial voice?
On a critique of a “bad” piece, this is generally the cycle I go through. Revulsion, annoyance, knuckle-down in-depth “explanation”, suggestion, review, uncertainty, self-doubt on a linguistic, artistic and moral level, and finally a close-eyes-and-jump moment of submit or send.
What does it boil down to? Many an artist has been initially reviled for breaking rules, being sloppy, being mad, being infantile, yet later lauded as a ground-breaking innovator. We can’t judge by status quo or sooner or later we’ll come a cropper. My best guess is that we have to judge by how well it communicates.
This criterion itself is fraught, as communication is necessarily two-way. The most perfect French communication will have no impact on a monoglot English listener. English is the most widely-stretched language in the world, being used from so many perspectives and by so many cultures, as we here at WA know. Its very adaptability is the undoing of those of us who feel we ought to be able to hold onto a solid nexus of right and wrong.
There is no simple answer, and yes, many rules in both grammar and style are there for good reasons and the writer that breaks them had better be confident, knowledgeable and careful. Sometimes though, the blind person in the rubber ring does, in their own way, cross the Atlantic because knowingly or not they communicate what they set out to. Sometimes a teleport door opens for them, which will never appear for the sighted or the well-equipped, and it is always educational to watch what happens.