2010-09-13

The New Model

Language is culture and culture is language. Language is thought, too.

It seems that for a long time there has been a recognition in our shared cultures that people need ways to use language without restrictions, in exactly the same way as people need to be able to tell stories about things that have never and could never happen. And just as in fairy tales, when we break the rules of language, we almost immediately create new ones. We oblige the farm-boy to go on a journey wherein he becomes a hero, solves the riddle and finds the magic sword. Only then can he return home and defeat the dragon that we met in chapter one.

Traditionally, when in the written or spoken word we break the rules, the new rules we impose are those of poetry. Generally, these rules are quite arbitrary - metre, for example, provides rhythm, which makes lines intended for memorization easier to learn - however there are many metres to chose from and the poet can affect profoundly through his choice.

Let me make another analogy: a painter may vary his paints, his brushes, his canvas (in both size, shape and materials). He may also vary his precision; he may be vague and blurry; he may be sharp and photorealistic (a horrible word that Turner would have loved until some bastard explained its intended meaning). A painter may also apply these same variations to content - content may be clear and obvious, or merely hinted at, or completely abstract.

We excuse the poet when he does the same. Here is a poem I wrote at school. If I tell you the title it may spoil it:

Slip ponderous selfish shoe,
Slip upon paths smeared with sludge.
Did a desperate deity decree you,
Forced with fearsome threats of fudge?

In this poem I have submitted to a few chosen rules of poetry, in order to get away with refering only obliquely to the object of my observation.

There is a literary convention called "heightened language" which allows us the same sort of tradeoff - literally that we can ignore normal rules provided that we impose others. Heightened language is often used in poetry but can be used in prose as well. Journalists and demagogues use it often, and the latter will deliberately break rules, often logical rather than grammatical either to make you think or to prevent you from thinking.

Here's a sentence from a book I am working on at the moment. The book (which is not intended for publication) is full of experiments in heightened language, but I chose this example because it is rather plain.

“The dogs were again silent, and the forest, more silent still.”

In critical language (the rigorous register in which I normally write articles), I would never have used that second comma. It is there to force a pause, because I'm looking for a very specific set of responses in my reader, and I think the incongruous comma draws special attention to the words around it. In addition, the sentence contains what would be, in rigorous language, a logical nonsense: silent and "more silent". Silence, we generally say, is an absence of noise. You cannot therefore have "more silence". However, heightened language allows us to connect the words in this sentence, and take their meanings, and in particular, their associated events and connotations together. We have been told that "the dogs were again silent". The connection of dogs and silent is, we suspect, telling us something special. They are listening to something? They have heard something important? Yet we are also told that the forest is silent - even more silent that the dogs. The logical nonsense of "more silent still" is telling us much more (I hope) than had this been rendered with better logic:

"The dogs fell silent again, and the forest was also silent."

If heightened language is the application of poetic freedom to prose, then what are the additional rules that we have to apply to heightened language to ensure that it is not unnacceptable to the reader? 

This is where the New Model comes in. The New Model is what I call the rules that I apply personnally to my own writing. The primary rule of the New Model is this pompous outburst: 

1. "A correct sentence is one which lacks ambiguity and whose meaning is readily accessible to as many possible of those for whom it is intended", shall be the whole of the law.

Such a rule excuses us from correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, doesn't it? It sets communication of meaning on a pedestal, stating that any other consideration is unnecessary. But supposing we are writing poetry or heightened language where we don't intend (as in my poem above) to tell the reader exactly what we are describing, hoping that he will take pleasure in guessing - or suppose we want to get a feeling, an emotion, something as vague as uneasiness from the reader, such as in the sentence about the dogs. In both these cases there is much room for interpretation, inference, ambiguity. If communication of meaning has been placed at risk to such an extent, how do we avoid alienation of our readers? We do it by applying other, sensible rules:

2 "Punctuation should be discreet, necessary, logical and congruous."

3a "Chekhov's rule* shall be applied to all grammar, 'correct' or 'incorrect'..."

3b "... however grammar should generally conform to expectations."

I think that 3b is implied by 1.

Have we come full circle? No. So what's the big idea? Why the pompously titled "New Model".

When European Cultures started introducing "education for all" it was with a very specific purpose that had nothing to do with equality. It was with the intention of creating generations of efficient workers and obedient soldiers. It was therefore necessary in the highly stratified societies that existed to ensure that everyone continued to know his place. Standard of education was and still is a key differentiator for people who like to judge in this way. They use your knowledge of grammar to determine where you are both on the scale of education and of class/background relative to them. Such people tell their children that their grammar MUST BE CORRECT to ensure that they are not judged incorrectly. To a similar extent (and in some places, probably greater), people are told that their grammatical errors may lead to opportunities being denied to them - by showing that their education is poor. All this is, of course, true. But it should not be our motivation for knowing our language well, and for using our language skillfully. We should not be motivated by fear of what others think of us.

We should be motivated by a desire to communicate our thoughts clearly.

If this is our motivation it is almost inevitable that we will want to master the use of our language, and an understanding of its grammar is very helpful (and may be essential to a complete mastery). I suspect that thinking this way about communication makes us better at thinking.

Those people whose meaning is clearest are those whose language is simplest. But their language is simple because of their mastery of it. This is grammar as kung fu. A minimum of action for a maximum of effect.


*AKA Checkhov's gun - "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

1 comment:

amsterdamassassin said...

"We should be motivated by a desire to communicate our thoughts clearly."

This is the main message that stood out for me when writing. Don't try to impress people with your prowess or vocabulary, impress them by telling a story in a way that they're unable to put down your book.