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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Diablogue with the Grace Pages

In an earlier post today I mentioned that Dave Rattigan of the Grace Pages blog invited me to diablogue with him over some issues concerning him from reading some of my blog posts. Dave has a keen insights on language matters and I have enjoyed following some of his previous exchanges with other linguists. Dave also has a good sense of recent church history, as can be seen from the literary allusion within the title of his blog post about my blogging:
Battle for the Bible: Wayne Leman and his campaign for a Bible he can read
The phrase "the battle for the Bible" is one which has been of importance within conservative christendom concerning one's view of the Bible. Dr. Harold Lindsell, a former editor of Christianity Today magazine, wrote a widely selling book titled The Battle for the Bible, published in 1976. Later, in 1997, World Magazine titled at least one of its articles "The Battle for the Bible" which had to do with the debate over Zondervan's desire to publish a more gender-inclusive revision of the NIV.

So, given his blog post title, my new blog friend, Dave Rattigan, obviously considers at least some of what I have preached about on this blog to be important, unless, of course, he is writing with some overstatement and a bit of dry British humo(u)r! Dave begins his blog post (throughout this post I will block quote Dave's comments to make it easier to tell who is saying what):
Anyone who has been reading my blog from the beginning will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about the advocates of "Proper English". On the other hand, I have been outspoken in advocating "Plain English", which is something quite different. I am still trying to figure out where on the scale to place Bible scholar and linguist Wayne Leman.

Wayne is determined to see the Scriptures made accessible to all people, and with that in mind, he is passionate in advocating the use of good, plain-speaking English in Bible translations. In this I am totally behind him. Few things irk me more than people who can't string a sentence together without flying over everyone's heads, and this should apply to Bibles as much as anything, or perhaps more than anything. After all, the Scriptures weren't given for intellectuals and academics, or even for the educated. They belong to the people.

Recent tirades (I make him sound like a warrior, but he confesses he is "a tender-hearted fellow") are against ungrammatical wordings, although he has a list of at least nine translational categories to look out for. (After that last sentence, I hope ending sentences with prepositions isn't one of them.)
You can breathe easily, Dave, ending sentences with prepositions is not on my hit list! Although I was taught "school grammar" (that is, prescriptive English), I stopped believing it many years ago. I have a tendency to frequently split my infinitives! And there are many things in English which the school grammarians preached against but which I am happy to put up with! (humor alert!!)

I am not a prescriptive linguist (that is, someone who tells people how they should speak and write). Rather, I am a descriptive linguist, someone who observes how people actually speak and write. I observe, as do many others, that the majority of English speakers continue to use subject-verb agreement, so in a published book, especially one as important as the Bible, I feel it is important to point out when there is lack of subject-verb agreement. Similarly, there are a number of other language "rules" (or "principles") that fluent English speakers and writers follow that I believe should be followed in a book intended to be in quality literary English--at least they should be followed until there is a sufficient consensus (a large majority) among English speakers that those rules need to be changed. And people vote for such change by using linguistic forms other than the ones which have been used previously. One such change currently taking place is the use of "I" instead of "me" in a sentence like "The teacher returned the essays to Karen and I." Many people use the "I" here, but there is not a consensus among a majority of speakers yet--if there ever will be one--for this change to be acceptable in a book published in a standard dialect of English.

I believe people have and should have linguistic choices. I do not think that "language police" should tell us how to speak, regardless of how well intentioned they are. I do think it is appropriate for English teachers to explain to their students what the current consensus is for usage of various linguistic forms. A teacher can explain that "If you want to be hired for some jobs, you need to be able to speak and write in a dialect that is approved of by the administrators of that company." But no one should ever tell people that they are "dumb" or "social rejects" if they speak a certain way.

Like you, Dave, I have been in favor of the plain English campaign which encourages the use of ordinary English in public documents. Most people would understand public documents better if those documents lacked legalese, academese, and other kinds of -ese language with which I am ill at ease!

Until a few days ago, when I noted the exchanges between you and linguistic professors Pullum and Liberman, I was not even aware that the Plain English Campaign (PEC) in the U.K. had moved beyond advocating the use of plain English, rather than convoluted technical language in public documents, to becoming something of a language police. I haven't yet researched this issue enough to read any of such language policing language from the PEC, but it would not surprise me. Many movements in history, including some church movements, have started well but then become ritualized (or legalistic) and crossed the boundary where demands are made, rather than allowing people choice, while explaining the consequences of certain actions, including certain kinds of speech or writing. In my opinion, a heavy-handed approach to anything does not demonstrate grace, the wonderful key word of your own blog.

I enjoy studying and evaluating English Bible versions. I enjoy reading the powerful, vivid, lively English in some of them. I find the English in others to be painful to read. I have worked as an English editor for a publisher. I edited lightly, allowed each other to speak in their own voice. But I was able to spot some typos, some grammatical errors, and some convoluted composition which could be revised to better form. It comes naturally to me to want to help English Bible translation teams improve the quality of their translations. Some teams have asked for such input, and I have been glad to give it. One team even paid me to give them editorial input on some of the books of the Bible that they had translated. That was a nice touch, but I usually do this work as an avocation. It just so happens that it is closely related to my vocation, which is working as a Bible translator for a tribal translation program(me).

I did not intend to convey the idea that I felt that any English translation team must change what sounded to me as ungrammatical. And if I did convey a kind of language policing, I apologize. I confess that I have not always been right in suggesting that what sounds ungrammatical to me would be shared by most other English speakers; two of them graciously informed me in comments to my blog post that my listing "send to" (without a direct object) as sounding ungrammatical to me was different from their own language intuitions which found it all right not to have a direct object, at least in certain contexts. I have been around long enough to know that people from different dialects have different senses of what is and what is not grammatical. People from different dialects use some different syntax, and I think most people know that they often use some different lexical items. [We in the U.S. wear a boot on our feet, while we have been told that for you on the other side of the Atlantic an automobile (which we more often call a "car") wears a boot!]
On the other hand, I wonder if Wayne doesn't stray too far over the mark from Plain English to Proper English territory. The Plain-English advocate is concerned for effective communication and intelligibility. The Proper-English advocate nitpicks over technicalities, whether they really make a jot of difference or not. I'm skeptical of his argument for transitive verbs needing objects. Wayne complains, for instance, that "You desire and do not have" (James 4:2a) requires an object, i.e. You desire and do not have x, y and z. Likewise with "You covet and cannot obtain" (4:2b). He worries that children might learn to speak "ungrammatical English" by reading such apparently poor wordings.
Yes, Dave, I am guilty as accused on this one. In my idiolect it just doesn't sound grammatical to leave off the direct object when using the verbs "have," "want," or "obtain" when speaking of having or desiring to have something. But if it is not ungrammatical for others, I am happy to stop preaching on this one, and leave well enough alone. I definitely do not want to nit-pick, nor do I want to become a harping prescriptivist.
Ugh. Wayne. I think we should dialogue on this one.
Good idea!
Would the imperative "Love and do not hate" be ungrammatical?
No, that one would not sound ungrammatical to me. The verbs "love" and "hate" can be used as intransitives just fine in my dialect.
Would anyone have a problem understanding me, even in the absence of an object to be loved/hated? "You desire and do not have; you covet and cannot obtain" reads well to me,
There we have it, folks, the empirical evidence we need that "have" and "obtain" sound all right to Dave, and probably many other speakers. I was not aware of this. That's the beauty of communication, isn't it--getting to learn things we didn't know before?!
and I find it difficult to believe the missing object hinders communication.
I don't think the missing object hinders communication either, Dave. I was only addressing the issue of grammaticality at that point, not ease of communication. Of course, there is some relationship between the two parameters, but not, I think, a direct one. I can understand people just fine who use English which is considered "ungrammatical" according to majority usage in any of the standard dialects of English. In fact, I grew up speaking a "sub-dialect" of English, and I can still shift back to it when I return to my childhood village.
I am all in favour of plain English, but in this particular protest I detect the faint aroma of the William Safires and Harry Blamireses of this world.
Oh, I would hope not, but since you detect the odor, I must take a shower and try to remove even that faint smell. I don't want to be associated with any kind of prescriptive language policing, especially if it projects any image of linguistic or social elitism.
Well, Wayne, I am up for some discussion of all this. We haven't chewed proper meat on this blog in ages, so if you're up for some crossblog dialogue (a diablogue), let's go for it.
I grew up eating a lot of meat (subsistence, wild meat) and I still like meat, although as I'm aging I'm trying to eat more veggies and fruit. Well, Dave, it's your turn. This is fun.

Enjoy (What, no object?!),

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At Sun Jun 19, 08:47:00 AM, Blogger language said...

Just wanted to say that I'm very glad you made your position explicit, since it's eminently sensible. Also, one thing I love about the internet and the new world it has created is that we can discover very quickly how widespread our own intuitions about English are; I can't tell you how many times I've learned from my readers that some usage I thought was weird or ungrammatical was perfectly OK with them. "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."



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