Monday, December 12, 2011

In Praise of Nerds

I have lived outside Australia for almost 13 years of my adult life, in two different countries. Both my adopted homes (Japan and Finland) are full of people who speak excellent English, but rarely as a first language.

Over the years I have become so tolerant of quirks in non-native speakers' English pronunciation and grammar that as long as I can understand the intended meaning, I literally don’t notice mistakes any more. I even find myself absorbing errors unconsciously into my own speech (“We’re leaving now. Do you come with us?”),and I’ve started to second-guess myself on basic grammatical points (“If I was rich”? “If I were rich”?)

All this has raised interesting questions inside my head. What is the purpose of the English language in today’s day and age? Has it actually become THE universal language? Given the different versions of English spoken in Australia, America, England, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, India, and countless other communities worldwide, how hard should we try to find and maintain certain basic standards of grammar, usage, and pronunciation? Is it actually possible - or even necessary - to keep the English language pure, and free from errors and laxity and rule-breaking (deliberate or otherwise)?

I have always been a bit of a purist in matters of English language usage. If I’m nonchalant to the point of over-generosity in allowing non-native speakers to make mistakes, I am absolutely the opposite when it comes to my own English and that of my native speaker friends. I cannot help but cringe inwardly when well-educated friends (even people with close to 20 years’ formal education in Australia or America) write things like this, not even realising that they've made an error:

“Your kind words meant a lot to Tom and I.” 

“Here are some photo’s for you!”

Naturally, I’m not going to correct my friends’ usage. My inner purist generally leads a softly-spoken and subdued existence, and is mindful of one friend’s excellent observation: “There’s a fine line between being grammatically correct and being a tosser.”

Besides, it’s not easy to be an English purist in today’s world.

A language used so differently in so many different countries in a fast-moving world is, by definition, going to need to be dynamic; arguably, this is one of those situations where substance is much more important than form. And besides, English speakers have no real equivalent of the “L'Académie française” language police agency that exists in France, telling people definitively what the rules are and how they should be followed. Today, you can consult the Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s, and the Macquarie Dictionary, only to find three conflicting opinions as to what is correct, what is archaic or literary but not necessarily incorrect, and what is just plain wrong.

I have to ask myself – should I just let it go, and let people use English in whichever way they choose? If I understand what they’re saying, why should it matter if they misplace apostrophes, take liberties with spelling and grammar, write in run-on sentences, or use text-ese in emails? Writers (especially bloggers) write to be heard, and their message is what's important here. And besides, let's face it, many people my age were never actually taught English grammar at school; their teachers very likely didn't even know the rules well enough to correct mistakes effectively.

And yet, I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of solid, well-written English. Last night, in my Facebook status update, I noted idly that suddenly everyone suddenly seemed to be using the word “whilst”, and wondered whether I was alone in my cluelessness about the difference between that word and “while”. There are 20 comments in that thread so far, and while this may merely reflect the fact that I am a nerd who has lots of nerdy friends, when one friend commented gleefully how much she enjoyed this kind of debate, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly.

My conclusion is that the English language today has two very different and distinct existences.

One “English”is the common language we use to get by in the world today. We speak and write to be understood. We tolerate mistakes (both our own and those of others). We become familiar with different “dialects” without insisting that people necessarily conform to our own linguistic idiosyncrasies. This English is the language of the internet, and the default language of the world media. We need this English to bridge divides of language and culture and to bring people closer together. We don’t – can’t –sweat the technicalities.

The other “English” is the English of classic literature; of good, satisfying grammatical debates; of spelling bees; of people who seek elegant turns of phrase and the beautifully correct use of difficult grammatical structures, and who delight in sharing their journey with others. We might break the rules sometimes, but we still want and need to know what those rules are, and we delight in arguing with like-minded people about linguistic grey areas.

My observation is that it’s become socially acceptable (even for native English speakers) to opt out of learning the second kind of English.

And maybe that’s perfectly ok.

Learning any language properly is a difficult, time-consuming task, and it’s arguable that in today’s world it is not strictly necessary to apply oneself to this task – it’s entirely possible to get by, and even do extremely well in life, without perfect grammar or spelling.

On the other hand, those who opt out of mastering their native language to a high level of accuracy will miss out on something - unquestionably. They will miss out on the thrill and satisfaction of mastering a difficult skill, and the sense of quiet pride that comes with the pursuit of accuracy and elegance. Excellence is, by definition, very difficult to attain, but investing time and effort in striving hard for excellence is one of the most fulfilling things a human being can do.

For their own sakes, I hope that in opting out of language mastery, people do not opt out of mastery per se. I sincerely hope that the time and effort that is saved is re-directed into pursuing excellence at something else. There are too many rush-jobs and corners cut and too much “winging it” in the overwhelming busy-ness of today’s world. The English language aside, everyone should know the quiet joy and satisfaction of being a nerd and a purist.


  1. Have you read Strictly English by Simon Heffer? I recommend it on the basis of your blog post.

  2. Sara, I just googled it, and it looks like the perfect book for me! Thanks so much for the tip.

  3. A good friend (and a fellow lover of language and writing) just sent me this quotation, which really got me thinking:

    "The deeper we go into the written word, the deeper we go into mistaking the snake for the apple - the messenger for the message. The sign of a healthy civilisation is the existence of a relatively clear language in which everyone can participate in their own way. The sign of a sick civilisation is the growth of a closed language that seeks to prevent communication."

    (John Ralston Saul, Canadian philosopher and author, "The Unconscious Civilisation")

    On the one hand, I couldn't agree more. No one should be closed out of a language. No language should become so complex or flowery or so full of pretension that the ordinary person cannot hope to learn and use it with ease. At university, some cases and articles I was required to read were written in such complex, dense, difficult language that their meaning was practically unintelligible, and it drove me crazy. I felt that those writers were being inconsiderate to their audience.

    On the other hand, I don't think that learning to write and speak basic English reasonably correctly is an overly lofty goal (just to be clear, I'm talking about learning it as a first language). Few (if any) languages are easy to learn - Chinese grammar is simple but the pronunciation and writing are complex; Japanese employs three different writing systems; Finnish grammar is a nightmare (even nouns have something like 17 different cases).

    At the end of the day, I do think that substance is more important than form, and that we should not mistake the messenger for the message. On the other hand, I will always admire and appreciate writers who write clearly and correctly, and I will always get a kick out of that extra little bit of elegance or cleverness that some writers manage!

  4. While John Ralston Saul is obviously correct in that way, there is also a clear need in society, that may by being lax about syntax and grammar become an unfulfilled one, for the use of language in general use that does not require a decoder ring to be understood mere decades or a century later.