Rules are made for breaking, especially for writers
Frankie Gaffney introduces his TEDx talk on exploiting punctuation and spelling
Many authors have exploited type creatively on the page, despite the standardising inclinations of editors and publishers (those human ancestors of autocorrect)
I’ve never been one for slavishly following rules. This has sometimes caused trouble for me (some might say I am the trouble). Yet an anti-authoritarian mindset has also stood to me. Surprisingly, it’s been of most benefit to me in studying and writing literature. As James Joyce put it, “non serviam”.
It amazes me how many people in all walks of life remain in thrall to rules they’ve never even thought about. The term “Grammar Nazi” has become a buzz word. It’s an ideology that is applied to every variety of writing, without respect to the very different aims and needs of distinct genres and media. Many identify themselves as such as if it were a badge of honour. But these people are rarely concerned with grammar in the true sense – ie syntax, or word order. The so-called grammar Nazis are usually just punctuation pedants, appalled by misplaced apostrophes. Orthographical autocrats who decry “wrong” spellings. They are obsessed with “rules” – but here’s the secret: these “rules” are a figment of their imagination.
Steven Pinker is a true language expert, a cognitive psychologist and linguist who has dedicated his life to the scientific understanding of what language is, and how it works. In the definitive style guide of the new millenium, The Sense of Style, Pinker puts it better than I could hope to. He explains that the so-called “rules” of English “. . . are not logical truths that one could prove like theorems; nor are they discoveries one could make in the lab. And they are certainly not the stipulations of some governing body, like the rules of Major League Baseball.”
There is no central authority in charge of the English language. Even the Oxford English Dictionary simply observes and records the words that are actually used. Language is whatever we make it. The only constant is change.
Frankie Gaffney at TEDxWexford
Those who are actually qualified to make pronouncements about language – linguists such as Pinker – are almost always descriptive, not prescriptive in their task. The exception Pinker made by writing his style guide was to sweep clear a host of silly misconceptions, along with misapplied rules that are not only twee and useless, but often an actively malign infuence on communication.
The only true barometer of whether language is good or bad is whether it performs well the function for which it is intended. Unduly deferring to the standard (or the received wisdom) often inhibits this (for example, the sounds of a dialect cannot be conveyed by sticking to standard spelling). This is perhaps of more acute concern than ever due to the increasing textuality of life – we are communicating using the written word more than we have in the entire history of humankind.
Electronic communications – SMS texting, internet chatrooms, personal emails – used to be rife with dialect spellings such as “howye” (how are you), acronyms like “lol” (laugh out loud), abbreviations such as “txt msg” (text message), and rebuses like “m8” (mate) – not to mention emoticons formed with punctuation marks, such as “;-)” (winky face).
However maligned, the fact is these practices emerged because they performed valuable functions. Dialect spelling conveyed the local and familiar forms of language we are used to in speech. Acronyms, abbreviations and rebuses facilitated brevity, and expedited typing in new forms of two-way written media that demand immediacy. Emoticons provided a sorely needed and highly effective replacement for pitch, tone, volume and intonation – all present in speech and absent from writing. But now autocorrect is determining how we spell words. This treasure trove of linguistic ebullience is being decimated by an impersonal algorithmic hand.
Now before anyone objects to my applauding sloppy spelling and delinquent punctuation, it is true that in many instances it is essential to write in a highly standardised manner. Academic writing, formal letters, business promotion – and of course journalism for newspapers like The Irish Times – all demand quite rigid conformity to certain expectations of our linguistic community. Nevertheless, restraining your use of language often diminishes the process of communication. While it might be highly inappropriate to spew expletives in front of a class of primary schoolchildren, teachers often find themselves bereft of apposite forms of expression to achieve the desired emphatic effect. This is a similar phenomenon to the inarguable utility of certain non-standard forms in writing, even if they shouldn’t be used in certain contexts. So we really should not be uptight in less formal genres where typing speed, visual impact or comedic value might be of much more importance than disinguishing between a possesive and an abbreviation.
One genre which should be much less restrained is literature. Txt spk might not always be of high literary merit, but there are many other ways to exploit the available characters of type creatively on the page. Many authors have done so, despite the standardising inclinations of editors and publishers (those human ancestors of autocorrect). But there remains a pervasise conception of literary works as consisting solely of a stream of words, isolated from the reality of their appearance in actual physical objects we call books. Elements like punctuation, spelling and typography are very much neglected when it comes to literary discussion.
In this TEDx talk I take a look at these areas in turn, and discuss my own approach to exploiting these elements of the medium to their fullest in my debut novel Dublin Seven.