Category Archives: Stephen Fry

Fry Him in Oil!

Nancy Hatch, writer of the Spirit Lights the Way weblog (see the Blogroll to the right and down) reminded me in a recent post (http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/loosening-the-chokehold-on-language/#comment-17452) that I have yet to vent my fury on this video:

It’s Stephen Fry’s response to those of us who are concerned with how language ought to be used.  He calls us pedants.

Now, if by pedant, he means that we’re teachers (the etymology of the word), I’ll accept his label.  However, I believe that he means the more modern usage of someone who picks at nits in the field in question.  Of course, if nits aren’t picked, they become lice, but unfortunately, lousy language fails to make far too many speakers itch.

Fry wonders if we pedants froth with joy about what he calls “verbal freshness.”  But look at the examples that he uses.  He names uninterested and disinterested as words that we understand, even when a speaker misuses them.  A disinterested person is someone who is impartial with regard to a particular subject, while someone who is uninterested merely does not care.  That’s a difference worth noting, and it’s indicated by one of two prefixes.  If we lose the distinction, we end up needing a lot more verbiage to express our meaning.  Or imagine if the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission declared themselves to be uninterested in financial dealings on Wall Street.  That would be cause for alarm, whereas a claim to be disinterested makes us merely doubt their veracity.  Notice that Fry used two words, sensuous and sensual, that have a similarly important difference in their meaning.  He meant both of them and used them correctly.  But if we didn’t have those two words with their individual definitions, he would have needed to use many more words to make his point.

He mentions the claim that good grammar indicates intelligence and clarity of thought.  Not quite.  What the proper usage shows us is that the writer or speaker cares enough about language to look up words to find the right one, edit out errors, and seek the best way to say something.  That has nothing to do with how bright the person is, but rather indicates the person’s responsibility.

Of course, poor Bill Shakespeare gets trotted out, as always whenever anyone wishes to defend sloppy language.  In this case, Fry is gleeful about how the Bard used nouns as verbs and did many other things with English that would get him into trouble in a pedant’s class.  This requires a general and a specific response.  In general, as I say in my own classes, any student who can write on the level of Shakespeare may feel free to ignore any number of rules, and I won’t notice.  Those who can’t achieve that greatness had better pay attention to good grammar.  This kind of argument is the equivalent of a first-year piano student who points out that some great jazz pianist broke rules.  Breaking rules is not what makes a writer or a musician great, and those who drool in homage over rule-breaking are missing the years of obedience that the great person had to practice.

But look at an example of the conjugated nouns in common use today.  Text is particularly ugly, especially in its attempted past tense form of texted.  There is no need for that word as a verb.  We’ve been sending messages to each other for a long time.  Why do we need to use one word in a lazy way when we aren’t actually doing anything new?  Laziness is exactly the problem.  If I have my telephone in hand and am typing a message, it can take a moment to find the correct word for my action, but it’s my duty to find that right word.  Yes, it takes time to check the dictionary (a good dictionary, not one of the modern permissive examples) for a definition or spelling.  Sometimes that pause is just what is needed to get one’s thoughts in order.  But why is it that those who whine about having to do a little work are listened to?

Contrary to Fry’s comments, I’m not opposed to playfulness, creativity, or variety in language.  I love puns.  I have no fundamental objection to the word ain’t.  (Double negatives do annoy me, though.)  One of the things that I enjoy about the speech of the masters of Southern American English is the rich usage of imagery.  Take a phrase like “finer than frog hair.”  That’s clever.

Since Fry uses Picasso as another example of someone who joyfully broke rules, I’ll use him as well.  What I’m arguing here is that we need Picassos of language, but not Pollocks.  Pablo Picasso lived an exuberant life and created brilliant new art, while Jackson Pollock was a drunk who made what looks like a pile of drop cloths.

There is rightness and wrongness in language, contrary to what Fry claims.  Would he tolerate a gardener who mowed half of his grass and then walked away?  Would he accept a plumber who called having both hot and cold water taps pedantic?  Creativity and sloppiness are not the same thing, and I’d be pleased if the advocates for the lazy would fail to act like the ones whom they praise and not get around to tearing down the English language.

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