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有时我喜欢安静,有时我喜欢热闹。 有时我喜欢加入人群,有时我喜欢远离他们,独自呆着。 冬天我渴望阳光,夏天我盼望下雪。 春去秋来,不变的是我的学术信仰、志向和兴趣。一直思考着:什么是语用?为什么要研究语用?怎样研究语用?研究语用需要具备哪些素质?谁在研究语用?语用研究的走势如何?存在哪些问题?等等。 我深信“宁静”方可“致远”的道理,努力走向这种境界。 求学、求真的路上,深深领悟到过程决定结果,过程大于结果,远远大于结果。

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Yesterday's Errors  

2014-08-20 05:38:52|  分类: 社会语用sociopro |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Yesterday’s Errors

Last week I listened to a conversation on “All Things Considered” between National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel and author Ammon Shea about his new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. It was fundamentally a discussion of language change and attitudes about language change, running the gamut from—to quote Siegel—“linguistic scolds to the most permissive writers on language.”

Shea, who puts himself at the permissive end of the spectrum, explained how some words that we now consider completely standard, such as lunch and balding, were once considered errors. Siegel expressed concerns about the comparative construction more unique and about author as a verb.

The next day, I went to NPR’s website to see just how many complaints about language the piece had unleashed from NPR listeners. The answer: a lot. As of the writing of this post, there are 228 comments on the interview, most of which involve people providing examples of English usage that they “don’t like,” “hate,” or feel are “misused,” “incorrect,” “improper,” or worthy of teeth clenching.

The usual suspects are there, including: less/fewerirregardlesslay/liemyself for me;anywaysincentivizeliterally used to mean ‘figuratively’; went missingcan/may (does that fifth-grade teacher really correct her students when they just want to go to the bathroom?). Then there are a few commenters trying to temper the discussion and reiterate Shea’s argument that words can and do change meaning—and nothing terrible happens.

It’s hard not to feel like there is a pressure cooker of linguistic anxiety out there, and an interview like this one provides a relief valve, allowing folks to vent some of the daily aggravations that have been building up for them.

Of course we’re going to notice language change, and we’re probably not going to like all that we notice. As I’ve written about on this blog before, there are some changes in the language that I don’t especially care for—but I am careful to recognize that this is my personal opinion. In looking at the NPR website, I am struck by the vehemence of the complaints (e.g., “hate” to me is a very strong word) and the ways in which people’s specific concerns obscure the larger point that Shea is trying to make.

Let’s take as an example this comment, which is aiming for judiciousness about language change:

I’m sympathetic to Mr. Shea’s argument for acceptance of change in our language. However, we should recognize that communication is only possible because we agree on the meaning of what we say. Common definitions and rules are necessary. What dismays me is when language change occurs not because of inventiveness or originality, but because of widespread repetition of what is clearly a mistake under current rules. In that case, those who are aware of the correct usage sometimes have to give up and go along with the crowd.

Here’s the thing: What counts as “inventive” and what counts as a “mistake” is a judgment call. We seem to be more likely to call language change in the past inventive and language change in the present a mistake. And as Shea is pointing out, many things that have been considered mistakes in the past are now completely unremarkable.

It was inventive to make notice a verb a couple of centuries ago, but it is a mistake to makeimpact a verb? We lost the distinction between thou and you and the language survived; but if less and fewer are no longer clearly distinguished, the language is going to have broken one “rule” too many? The coinage colonize is original and useful, but incentivizerepresents misuse of the language? Ben Franklin didn’t think so: He felt colonize was a bad addition to the language.

I could go on with tried-and-true examples of yesterday’s errors that now do not seem like errors at all. I hope we can all keep these examples in mind if/when we find ourselves tempted to say that we “hate” a new construction or are about to judge someone harshly for using a word in a new/inventive/nonstandard way. Can we find a way to temper our response given what we know about how language changes and about how attitudes about “good usage” change?

I agree with the commenters on the website on this point: It is helpful to know which constructions style guides and “linguistic scolds” are going to criticize so that we can navigate formal writing (and to some extent formal speech) in savvy ways. No argument there.

It is also helpful and important to know how linguists think about language change and about some of the advice in style guides. To have both perspectives makes us more informed speakers and writers with a more critical perspective on the “rules” we learn in school, in usage guides, and elsewhere.

Let’s not make this an either/or decision: Should you listen to usage guides or listen to linguists? If you listen to linguists, you can turn to your favorite usage guide in even more informed and judicious ways.

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