Shilling for Big Read

|

"Big Read" is an NEA initiative that promises to "restore reading to the center of American culture." Over at the LA Times, reason contributor Jim Henley shares some thoughts with the few who can still interpret printed characters:

The NEA knows that reading has slipped because of its own survey from 2004, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," and a 2007 follow-up, "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence." The reports find 20-year declines in what the NEA calls "literary reading" among all demographic categories. It defines "literary reading" generously: "any novels, short stories, poetry or plays"—anything fictional or poetic. "Executioner" novels count as much as "The Corrections"; Dan Brown no less than Tony Kushner. "Reading at Risk" concluded that fewer than half of all Americans read stories or poems for pleasure in 2002.

I feel bittersweet about this myself. I'm writing a novel. I've published poems. Nothing feels quite so discomfiting to me as walking into someone's home and realizing that there is not a single book to be found in it. But nearly everything that was around in 1982 is less central than it used to be: broadcast television, the Big Three automakers, the major record labels. And in the February Harper's, Ursula K. Le Guin suggests the larger pattern: For much of history, hardly anyone read, and even fewer read for pleasure rather than necessity. Then, for a while, many people read. (Le Guin sees "a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950—call it the century of the book.") Now fewer do.

Against the long pull of this tide, the NEA's Big Read program looks like mere sentimentality.

Read the whole thing. And then push against the tide by reading one of Henley's poems.

NEXT: More Texas-14: Paul Moving Up

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “Executioner” novels count as much as “The Corrections”

    Not so. Anything that isn’t The Corrections counts double.

  2. This is not the same NEA I assumed it was when I first read the blub. The OTHER NEA (the National Education Association) should look itself in the mirror. By opposing much needed reforms that could improve the quality of education in the United States the National Education Association (again, not the same NEA mentioned in this post) has become part of the problem and not part of the solution. Not all teachers agree with the National Education Association’s official position on this and as a son of two teachers I know that there are some good teachers out there. But the leadership of that union has held back education by stalling education reform and protecting some incompetent teachers who make the quality teachers look bad

  3. I’m pretty certain that the doom and gloom calls of the spreading illiteracy is pretty much bunk. Most communication (especially by the younger generation) is done with text messages and online chatting, with e-mail a strong contender as well.

    The printed word and proper spelling and grammar may be taking some blows to the chin right now. However, grammar has been beaten like a red headed stepchild for several generations now, and is still standing. And with spellcheck software in almost everything, spelling has a chance.

    But… that’s just my opinion…

  4. Has anybody here actually read Finnean’s Wake? How many languages do you have to be fluent in to read the thing?

  5. Butt if Wii be come to reliant on spellcheckers IT can cause reel problems.

  6. Remo Williams, the Destroyer is far superior to Mack Bolan, the Executioner.

    Remo would kick the asses of Zod, Chuck Norris, and Jack Bauer while giving every woman within a 20 foot radius multiple orgasms.

  7. I wonder why only fiction was considered.

    Nonfiction can be read for pleasure. Actually, the vast majority of it is. If you aren’t a professional historian and you read history, you are reading for pleasure.

    I suspect nonfiction has to be excluded to get the “right” outcome. Because if you don’t exclude it, I would assert that all internet reading counts too. Every pinhead girl sitting at her computer and reading dlisted.com all day is a nonfiction reader for pleasure, and if we just count words she probably reads as much as the average person ever has.

  8. The reports find 20-year declines in what the NEA calls “literary reading” among all demographic categories.

    Perhaps the written word is not the best medium for fictional story telling.

    To judge a populations literacy on what forms of media they choose to consume fiction story entertainments with is a bit idiotic.

  9. Sometimes people read fiction online too such as
    http://fiction.wikia.com/wiki/WikiNode

    and we must not forget

    http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page

  10. I think only fiction was included because studies that indicate we are now reading more non-fiction than any other time in history would not provide a secondary motivation for public funding of the arts.

  11. And what J.C. said. With Cable, satellite, off-air TV, DVD rentals, on-demand video, downloadable programm, video games, and porn, we have more artistic content and entertainment available today.

  12. However, grammar has been beaten like a red headed stepchild for several generations now, and is still standing.

    Realistically my bet would be on the grammar and punctuation Nazis of the world have been complaining about this since the written word was invented.

    The more people using the written word the way they want is not only practical…that is the point of the written word right, to be used…but benefits the language and its users as a whole.

  13. And with spellcheck software in almost everything, spelling has a chance.

    Your knew a round hear, arndt yew? 😉

  14. Hookers on phonics works 4 me.

  15. “No single factor caused this problem. No single solution can solve it. But it cannot be ignored and must be addressed,” Gioia said.

    Opps, never mind. I just finished the article and dicovered how wrong I am. Before reading this I thought there was no problem, no need for a solution, and we could ignore it / do not have to address it at all. Next time I’ll read RTFA in its entirety before making an ass of myself.

    I hope someone has posted something after my last two post. Monopolizing a thread with three in a row is only slightly better than two people firing off 30 posts letting everyone know just how much they disagree with each other.

  16. Nonfiction can be read for pleasure. Actually, the vast majority of it is. If you aren’t a professional historian and you read history, you are reading for pleasure.

    Emphatically agreed. The same goes for the sciences and sociology.

  17. To judge a populations literacy on what forms of media they choose to consume fiction story entertainments with is a bit idiotic.

    well, isn’t the definition of literacy specific to a medium, namely reading?

    reading on the internet is the same as reading a book, so, good point, Libertarian Librarian

    reading might be considered to be preferable over other forms of media/ entertainment because it’s more active. watching TV or movies is typically a fairly passive activity, though it depends on what you’re watching.

  18. And with spellcheck software in almost everything, spelling has a chance.

    I am looking forward to the day in which Drudge can automatically be translated into L337 speak.

    “0Bomb LOLPWNS CLITBTCH @ Tex primaries”

  19. reading might be considered to be preferable over other forms of media/ entertainment because it’s more active.

    Huh?

    How is reading what someone else wrote in linear fashion as it was intended more active then inventing a game of how many Hookers can you kill in under a min on GTA4?

  20. One could even argue that one is MORE literate if one is reading nonfiction. If you read fiction it is possible on is learning primarily about a fictional world. Knowing the difference between an ogre and an ork might be neat but it has little practicle value. If one is reading a nonfiction book about how to improve one’s financial future or get a better job it certainly can have practical value.

  21. The more people using the written word the way they want is not only practical…that is the point of the written word right, to be used…

    The point of both written and spoken language is to be used to communicate. Written language also had the benefit over spoken language of being stored information prior to the invention of audio recording technology. If you are using language idiosyncratically in such a way that your meaning is unclear, then that’s a problem with using language “the way they want.”

  22. How is reading what someone else wrote in linear fashion as it was intended more active then inventing a game of how many Hookers can you kill in under a min on GTA4?

    I didn’t say it was, that’s not the comparison I made. I compared reading to watching TV and movies, not creating games.

    When I read nonfiction, Lord of the Rings, for example, I visualize what’s happening in the book in my mind, like creating my own movie in my head. That’s active.

    Watching the movies of the Lord of the Rings is more passive. The visuals are presented to you, and you receive and process the information, but don’t have to translate written language into its meaning.

  23. joshua corning:

    http://www.rinkworks.com/dialect/

    Choose “Hacker”. Be happy.

    And J sub D:

    n0, 1’v3 |333n |-|3r3 4 a whi13… (Stupid thing doesn’t like backslashes… and I’m too much in lazy hobo mode to clean it up more.)

    When communicating with 13 year olds, being able to out 1337 speak them is an advantage, and leads to the 1337 speak being dropped quickly… 🙂

    Nephilium

  24. If you are using language idiosyncratically in such a way that your meaning is unclear, then that’s a problem with using language “the way they want.”

    YA cuz writing with the intent to deceive or to code your communications is such a huge f’ing sin to history…as well as impossible to do if proper grammar and punctuation is used.

  25. Most of what’s done on the internet is reading. Radio took away from books, TV took away from radio, the internet takes away from TV, so we ended up back at reading. Granted, it’s not books, but I honestly don’t see why reading the Da Vinci Code has any greater value than reading Reason on or offline.

    Reading for the sake of reading is kind of pointless. What’s more important is to read for what informs and interests you, so whether it’s books, magazines, articles, poetry or whatever, it’s all good.

  26. Perhaps must learn to EMBRACE the new modes of discourse

    One need not look far for signs of freewheeling literary experimentation and innovation amongst our younger generations – academy-certified “literarture” be damned!

    e.g.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4YRhrDod9Q


    “pisot13 (10 minutes ago)
    stupid ass shit thats wat u get homie
    posser
    FUCK U
    rofl
    lmao
    lmfao
    lol

    BrutallyBree (1 day ago)
    OMG DUDE THATS EFFiN HiLLARiUS

    wowcrippy (3 days ago)
    i think that was stagged

    flskimskatesurf (2 days ago)
    if you werent fucking dumb you’d realize dumb ass is two words, dumb ass.

    Fagget88 (2 weeks ago)
    XD omg the is XD

    700016597 (3 weeks ago)
    A hard core comment,

    That shitbox worth NOTHING!
    Be greatful someone took that.
    Yours truly
    Philosopher Mac

    fuckjayandjohn (4 weeks ago)
    first off y wuld the be in a rich neighborhood, with that shitty car? second off y wuld a gang banger be waltzin through that neighborhood? finally, that guy is the biggest wigger ever

    xpistolwhipx (1 month ago)
    A: I bet your white so… lol
    B: The stupid nigger doesn’t realise HE’s ON? CAMERA so if this is real that niggers going to jail because they have evidence that some nigger was dumb enough to steal a vehicle that was being filmed
    and C: Your white, this is probley fake, and you are retarded for saying such vulgar against white men because we say things about black men and its oh fucking racist but when you say stuff about us its “cool” I think its “fucking retarded” jackass

    Slimguy1676 (3 months ago)
    AHHHHHH good 4 yo ass. think about stuff be4 ghostridin yuh(now gone)whip. xD sum1 had to shut u up, makin random noise wit no music sounds wierd

  27. “The point of both written and spoken language is to be used to communicate. Written language also had the benefit over spoken language of being stored information prior to the invention of audio recording technology. If you are using language idiosyncratically in such a way that your meaning is unclear, then that’s a problem with using language “the way they want.””

    I agree, this is one of the problems I have with so-called modern art. If noone but the artist knows the meaning of a work – that artist is not communicating.

  28. When I read nonfiction, Lord of the Rings, for example, I visualize what’s happening in the book in my mind, like creating my own movie in my head. That’s active.

    Watching the movies of the Lord of the Rings is more passive. The visuals are presented to you, and you receive and process the information, but don’t have to translate written language into its meaning.

    Only problem being that any neurologist will tell you that when “passively” proccessing a movie your brain is more active then when that same brain is reading a book.

    I didn’t say it was, that’s not the comparison I made. I compared reading to watching TV and movies, not creating games.

    What ever you meant to write is not in your text…”other forms of media/ entertainment” is what you wrote. Grand Theft Auto 4 is a media entertainment that allows the user to choose what activity in its non-liniar story she wishes to participate in which is very unlike the written word and a far more “active” form of media.

  29. “Radio took away from books, TV took away from radio, the internet takes away from TV, so we ended up back at reading.”

    Now podcasting is taking away what is left of radio. For a while AM radio was kind of interesting – then it got formulaic. Now podcasting is enabling niche audiences. Topics that would not have a large enough market share in a particular city have a large enough audience to survive because anyone who has an internet connection and can understand that particular language is your potential audience.

  30. joshua, you wrote: What ever you meant to write is not in your text…”other forms of media/ entertainment” is what you wrote.

    I wrote: watching TV or movies is typically a fairly passive activity, though it depends on what you’re watching.

  31. Libertarian Librarian | February 25, 2008
    One could even argue that one is MORE literate if one is reading nonfiction. If you read fiction it is possible on is learning primarily about a fictional world.

    I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Knowing the difference between an ogre and an ork might be neat but it has little practicle value.

    Arrrg! The wasted years! The foolish assumption that these details would provide useful aid in cave-exploring!! Would that you had intervened but sooner!

    Lies! Lies! All of them lies!

    (throws Alice in Wonderland in the fire)

    Useless tripe!!…

    (tears Candide to shreads)

    …and you made me think pigs could talk!!!

    (Animal Farm goes out the window)

    …Dont even get me started, Eugene Ionesco…IF THAT *IS* YOUR REAL NAME!!!!

    (whole shelf toppled over)

    …this all clearly explains my lack of material success! My empty world! My inability to Win Friends And Influence People!!! Where oh where were you when I needed *you*, Dale Carnegie!!!!!!

    (suddenly, over the weeping of our hero, an ancient and wise voice speaks out…)

    “Gilmore….. GILMORE….that time when there was only one set of footprints…. THAT WAS WHEN I CARRIED YOU”

  32. damn, misspelling shit really takes some of the wind out of my whole rhetorical steez.

    hoist by mine own petard. Or, as kids would say, “dood, lol, I totaly got pwned like gayzorz”

  33. If you are using language idiosyncratically in such a way that your meaning is unclear, then that’s a problem with using language “the way they want.”

    But of course what the Grammar Nazis object to is actually language that everybody except them uses. It just happens to be different from the way the Grammar Nazis want us to talk. Their proscribed ‘bad grammar’ doesn’t impede communication at all–it only annoys the (misinformed) purists. Splitting infinitives and saying ‘irregardless’ is perfectly meaningful and not in the least unclear. Just frowned upon. Like wearing white before Memorial Day.
    As long as we recognize that most of what the Grammar Mavens are enforcing is simply the imposition of their taste (and unsupported by facts of history or usage), they should be free to tut-tut to their heart’s content.

  34. I shill for Big Red

  35. Irrespective of your opinion, using irregardless communicates clearly that you are not from the educated classes who have agreed that only the uneducated practice that particular usage. It shares status with ain’t in that respect. A real word, for sure, but one with metalinguistic overtones more prominent than others.

  36. Practicing Grammarian | February 25, 2008, 7:34pm | #

    SEND THIS MAN TO DETROIT!!!

    Oh… shit… wait.

    EVIL ARMY! *KEEP* THIS MAN IN DETROIT!!!!

    [interjection by GILMORE]

    Is it a surprise that linguistics professors (or worse = COMMUNICATION STUDIES!!) write the most absolutely unreadable shit in the world?

    I summon the ghosts of Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, to haunt you until you renounce your heresy.

    Then, Dickens will come and slap you silly. Just for fun.

  37. Here’s a thought for nothing: The only grammar nazis who are going to matter, in the long run, aren’t the ones who flunked you in high school, but the ones in human resources reading the cover letter to your resume. Grammar takes a beating and continues to matter because being able to express yourself clearly and unambiguously continues to matter.

    As for the bias toward fiction as a measure of reading, I believe it is more demanding mentally and what, empathetically(?), to read fiction. It takes you to an inner world other media can’t approach in the same detailed way. Does it matter that people aren’t reading fiction? Probably not. Today’s internet information and entertainment consumer is going to get his glimpse of the inner human world by whatever medium he favors. Video games, though I don’t enjoy playing them, seem most ripe for developing an original angle on exploring the inner world.

    Dug

  38. Wow, look, I called them video games. Okay, that dates me. Computer games, especially the multi-player format. That’s what I meant.

  39. I shill for big Reed

  40. I shill for Reed Richards

    Its Clobberin Time!!!

  41. I’m shilling for Big Rhett

  42. I’m shilling fow big wed

  43. Nein Schilling for Big Red

  44. ir m?ssen Sie f?r das Zur?ckweisen des grossen Rotes t?ten

    kpow

  45. Red Sox Rule!

  46. Irrespective of your opinion, using irregardless communicates clearly that you are not from the educated classes who have agreed that only the uneducated practice that particular usage. It shares status with ain’t in that respect. A real word, for sure, but one with metalinguistic overtones more prominent than others.
    Exactly. Objections to the word are sociological statements of prejudices, not logical, mathematical or scientific ones. But Grammar Mavens treat them as if they were somehow handed down from God, rather than accumulated prejudices based on a series of historical accidents.
    Also, (for THE EVIL DOCTOR KLAHN..) don’t confuse me with Chomsky–some linguists (Pinker, Lakoff) write very readably. For that matter, so do I–feel free to read my articles on my website, although I should warn you that they’re rather technical.
    And don’t confuse me with ‘Communications’ types either–I actually know something about how language works. /snark

  47. “Pinker, Lakoff”

    I’ve read both. I had to. Not a fan. In fact, more of an sworn arch-enemy. Reason actually profiled Lakoff on this blog not too long ago. Ok, maybe 2-3 years ago. There’s some intereting commentary. To the tune of, “who the fuck is this moron?”

    to wit

    https://www.reason.com/news/show/33976.html
    and
    https://www.reason.com/news/show/32021.html

    fwiw, i was already predisposed to consider him a schmoo before i’d ever seen these. ooooh. BIAS. Bias, baaaaaaad.

    I happen to be one of these types that thinks most of what we need to know was written by greeks a couple thousand years ago. And I despise most acedemics by instinct, if not for any other legitimate reason. It’s nothing personal. They made me read to much really really shitty stuff. It hurt. It’s like McCain and Torturers and stuff. dont say “lacan or derrida” or i start screaming “CLEANING LADY!!CLEANING LADY!!” and strangle the nearest person.*

    (*”dead men dont wear plaid” reference)

  48. Somebody had to say something in this goddamn thread that would cause me to yell “DRINK!”

    Consider it yelled.

    I gotta prove a theorem drunk!

  49. Where are you fuckers…am I drinking alone? Isn’t that a sign of a problem?

    Come on, dudes, it’s Monday night … oh wait …

    Fuck.

  50. Sorry for the language if that’s a problem on this goddamn blog!

    Blasphemy doesn’t count as bad language!

    I just caught three spelling errors in those sentences! Four!

  51. Reading is an exercise program for the mind. Whether the activity is fiction or nonfiction is not particularly important, as either allows the reader to sharpen powers of observation, inference and prediction, increase the ability to communicate more precisely, and explore new ideas in a safer and less judgemental arena than in real life. Books demand active interpretation, yet allow one freedom to mentally follow the occasional wild goose and return without substantially altering the flow of understanding.

    Generally, people do seem to read less for pleasure than twenty years ago, but I still have many friends who have one or two books going constantly (as do I).

    My biggest problem is becoming lack of space. I find myself unable to part with most of my books, and find myself planning to buy a new home just to have room.

    Keep reading. There’s always something new to ponder.

  52. JsubD:

    Nonfiction can be read for pleasure. Actually, the vast majority of it is. If you aren’t a professional historian and you read history, you are reading for pleasure.

    Emphatically agreed. The same goes for the sciences and sociology.

    Porn too? I realize some of it is fiction, but some of those “Penthouse Letters“? seem so real…

    Am I dating myself?

    Even better.

  53. …accumulated prejudices based on a series of historical accidents.

    Sure.

    Which the normal, non-acedemic person uses the term, “good” for.

    ‘Elements of Style’ never did much for people who can’t write at all in the first place. And no linguist ever taught anyone how to write better.

    Accumulated Predjudices are useful.

    I dont remember who said it, and maybe it was just a throwaway comment from some professor, but someone once said, “if you cant articulate it specifically, you arent actually thinking it”.

    You might argue that the quality of ‘articulation’ is clearly relative to the audience. OK. Or, one could point out that the average audience is generally pretty fucking stupid and needs to be spoonfed. some people simply can’t read montaigne, say, and there’s no real way to ‘translate’ the stuff apart from his form.

    If you can’t read a variety of modes, then you cant think in a variety of modes, which essentially makes you an intellectual cripple.

    Which is what i think most liberal arts programs have been doing for the last 25 or so years.

    I’m a fan of Allan Bloom, as it happens. Neither here nor there. Just connected thought from the above.

    Ever read Gertrude Steins’ “How To Write”? If she were alive… Oh, I would kill her with my bare hands. I bet that shit gave a few dozen acedemics tenure.

  54. Who knew Henley was
    libertarian poet?
    Worst haiku ever.

  55. GILMORE, are you drinking too?

    …or just smoking pot?

  56. Those who focus on consistent grammatical correctness are rarely as much fun to read as the those who focus on effective communication.

  57. Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Lose His Job | February 25, 2008, 11:59pm | #
    GILMORE, are you drinking too?

    …or just smoking pot?

    I resent the suggestion.

    Well, Ok. Yeah, couple of Grolsch lagers. Otherwise the headaches take over and im not as personable.

  58. I am drinking some combination of a Sam Adams mix pack and Sierra Nevada Pale Ales. And the fucking proof isn’t coming.

    Erd?s said a mathematician is a machine that turns beer into theorems…oh, it was coffee into theorems. I’ve been taking the wrong drug for the result I want.

    Einstein had a quote that was relevant here.

  59. I tell ya the double acute accent is a pain in the ass to look up when you’re drunk.

    So is editing.

  60. A failure to use standard English demonstrates that you are uneducated, wish to be perceived as uneducated, or are too lazy to take action to avoid giving such an impression.

    The wonderful thing about people who go out of their way to point out that standard English is arbitrary is that they are advertising they do not fall into the first group due to accident of personal circumstances. Accordingly, they fall into the classes where one can feel fully justified in one’s scorn for them. They have chosen the (appearance of) ignorance; let them feel the consequences of their choice.

  61. Practicing Grammarian | February 25, 2008, 9:46pm | #

    I read some of your chapter from the oxford handbook. I gave up around pg 10

    Interesting, and for the subject matter, not painfully written. (sorry for faint praise – it wasnt best reading material before bed)

    Im not sure i held the whole picture together throughout. But i think i grasped the basic ideas about the difference between arbitrary signifiers, and biologically determinate or congnitively entrenched code phonemes or whatever.

    Im probably butchering whatever the topic was. Forgive.

    Anyhoo. You ever read that harvard lecture series that Leonard Bernstein gave? He seemed to make an argument for biological basis for connections between sounds and meanings… connecting the “nanny nanny poo poo” sounds that kids make around the world to the 5 tone scale. Or something like that. I get that easier because I have some musical training. Basically, that some sound-meaning units are biological. I dont know if any of that has the slightest connection to your work but it was something that came to mind.

    I’ve noticed that musicians tend to be pretty good public speakers. The intuitive grasp of how tone and rhythm or articulation affect meaning translates to effective public speaking in some cases.

    Southern preachers have a thing going on here too. Now *theres* a linguistics PhD thesis waiting to happen. Or most likely, already has 5x over, ad nauseum.

  62. this is what i was referring to

    http://www.leonardbernstein.com/studio/element.asp?FeatID=7&AssetID=24

    maybe not the best reference. They say he was basing some of his ideas off chomsky. But then, who’s to blame him, given the time he did it.

  63. The wonderful thing about people who go out of their way to point out that standard English is arbitrary is that they are advertising they do not fall into the first group due to accident of personal circumstances.

    Wow england must suck…I like it here where class is determined by how much money you have.

  64. English is a tremendously flexible language capable of conveying very precise, delicate shades of meaning. Unfortunately, most people don’t know it well enough to take advantage of its virtues, and the internet is hardly an advertisement to the contrary. This state of affairs should be cause for telling the English teachers to get the lead out, not for saying ‘Eh, fuck it, let’s go kill some pixellated hookers.’ (Or better yet, do both.)

  65. “Irrespective of your opinion, using irregardless communicates clearly that you are not from the educated classes who have agreed that only the uneducated practice that particular usage. It shares status with ain’t in that respect. A real word, for sure, but one with metalinguistic overtones more prominent than others.”

    Shouldn’t that be “sociolinguistic”?

    My father has a master’s in history from an Ivy League school. I believe I’ve heard him say “irregardless.” I think only the snooty educated with large utensils up their arses would rule someone uneducated who used “irregardless.”

  66. Maybe I am busy reading technical manuals instead of poems. Usually your poem types never read technical data and vice versa. Doesn’t mean people aren’t reading because sales of Poe and Pound are lacking.

  67. My father has a master’s in history from an Ivy League school. I believe I’ve heard him say “irregardless.” I think only the snooty educated with large utensils up their arses would rule someone uneducated who used “irregardless.”

    Depends, is it in the Scrabble dictionary? That’s the front line of acceptable vernacular.

  68. I will poke back in here to say a word in defense of the grammar Nazis:

    Some of the rules that seem arbitrary when you’re breaching them will seem less so when you make an effort to obey them.

    If as an experiment you decided to eliminate all the split infinitives you use, and to absolutely stop ending sentences with prepositions no matter how inconvenient it seems, and to obey all the other silly little rules, you would probably be shocked at the sentences you’d produce.

    All at once a certain percentage of what you wrote would start to sound like a letter written during the Civil War. How did semiliterate parochial farm boys all write letters like that? Ken Burns knows the answer: they forced themselves to obey arbitrary grammatical rules.

  69. All at once a certain percentage of what you wrote would start to sound like a letter written during the Civil War. How did semiliterate parochial farm boys all write letters like that? Ken Burns knows the answer: they forced themselves to obey arbitrary grammatical rules.

    Well, when your spare time is consumed by either:

    1) Reading grammar books, or
    2) Fucking sheep…

  70. Written language also had the benefit over spoken language of being stored information prior to the invention of audio recording technology.

    In addition, you can’t talk as fast as I can comprehend the written word. I purchased a book on tape for drive time once. Thirty minutes later, it was roadside litter. The time advantages of reading over listening are considerable.

  71. I can read well enough to deduce that reading has plummeted since the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts.

  72. All at once a certain percentage of what you wrote would start to sound like a letter written during the Civil War. How did semiliterate parochial farm boys all write letters like that?

    My pet theory on that topic: many of them learned to read using the King James Bible as their textbook.

  73. If as an experiment you decided to eliminate all the split infinitives you use, and to absolutely stop ending sentences with prepositions no matter how inconvenient it seems, and to obey all the other silly little rules, you would probably be shocked at the sentences you’d produce.

    Since most of these rules were invented out of whole cloth by schoolteachers in the eighteenth century, based on nothing but arbitrary prejudices, and contrary to the entire previous history of the language), it’s astounding that anyone still pays attention to them. Certainly Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and other great writers violated all these rules, and we still read them. Yet others (Bishop Lowth, for example, who invented the ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ rule), are only read by historians of linguistics.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying you can talk, or write, ‘any way you want’. You are projecting an image when you speak or write. I’m just saying that many (but not all) of these rules have weird histories that do not allow them to be defended on logical or moral grounds. I don’t wear a bathing suit to the symphony, nor do I wear tails to a rock concert, but you can’t convince me that there is something rational about the length of my jacket tail that just makes me a better dresser.

    Further to a question above, yes, some musicians do have a feel for spoken language rhythms. And yes, Bernstein was one of them. I’m not against esthetics in language, I’m against moralizing about tiny irrational grammatical points that many insist on treating as linguistic ‘gotchas’.

  74. Some English grammar rules are just written down and codefied usage patterns. Others are based on dead classical Romance languages not related to English, a Germanic tongue. English only borrowed lots of words from the Romance languages. So it’s just kind of silly to insist that English stick to rules that are derived from other languages. Grammar is just patterns of speech, that’s it.

    Of course, when you go to write, there are all kinds of “style” rules. Those are just as arbitrary though some seem reasonable. But let’s not confuse grammar with style.

  75. metalinguistic overtones more prominent than others.”

    Shouldn’t that be “sociolinguistic”?

    My father has a master’s in history from an Ivy League school. I believe I’ve heard him say “irregardless.”

    “Sociolinguistic” is a fine term as well (more restrictive* than mine,but…)

    Btw, the unacceptable sheen of “irregardless” adheres primarily to its written form. I bet your father never used it in a piece of formal writing.

    *Re: metalinguistic-

    meta = Beyond; transcending; more comprehensive

  76. Practicing Grammarian,

    What’s your opinion of Len Talmy’s work?

  77. Len Talmy-
    http://linguistics.buffalo.edu/people/faculty/talmy/talmyweb/index.html

    Not an example of a reader friendly linguist, but a deep thinker, imho.

  78. To artfully split an infinitive or to write a clunky sentence. That is the question

  79. I think Talmy’s work is terrific, but he’s also a friend of mine–spent time with him last summer at a conference in Krakow. He is a terrible public speaker, however.

  80. To artfully split an infinitive or to write a clunky sentence. That is the question

    For example, there is no way to rewrite the following:

    We expect trade to more than double next year.

    *We expect trade more than to double next year.
    *?We expect trade to double more than next year.

    (asterisks represent standard linguistic notation for impossible sentences–additional stigmata such as question marks may be used for REALLY bad stuff)

  81. For example, there is no way to rewrite the following:

    We expect trade to more than double next year.

    *We expect trade more than to double next year.
    *?We expect trade to double more than next year.

    Never say never.

    “We expect more than twice as much trade next year.”

  82. We expect we can more than double trade next year.

  83. We expect that trade will more than double next year.

  84. We expect more than a doubling of trade next year.

  85. Trade will more than double next year, we expect.

  86. We expect trade to double, at the least, next year.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.