Saturday, December 27, 2008

CIA in Afghanistan

Rarely have I seen a more awesome story. Read through to the end!

How'd the Post get it?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grammar Nazis, Stephen Fry, and word power

I have only just discovered the marvel that is actor/comedian/geek/writer Stephen Fry. His quite-charming, too-bad-we're-both-taken British finesse has only been accentuated now that I've discovered his Web site, which humanized him to me somewhat. He writes often prolific blessays, and - Lord help me! - I'm addicted. Just listen to this sentence; just imagine his cadence if he were to orate it.
Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.

This is from a (long, skip to his later half if you must) blessay on language, in which he entreats pedants (that's British for Grammar Nazis, keehee!) to quit being stuffy about language. He argues that language is a living thing, and change is fine, even when that change springs from misunderstanding and misuse (such as "meld" to mean "melt" and "weld" rather than "announce," is his example). He further thinks that although grammatically there is a distinction between "5 items or less" and "5 items or fewer" on the grocery store quick-check sign, to actively pursue the distinction takes the joy out of language.

Do Grammar Nazis, he wants to know, ever "yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?"

And now that he's said it so beautifully, I find it hard to disagree. What is the place of an editor except to clarify meaning by enforcing a stuffy standard that actually says that how living, breathing people talk is wrong? How does that make sense?

Despite that... There is something to be said for a precise standard, especially in today's litigious society. If I write an article about someone, I don't want to misrepresent their intentions by twisting them with my own unclear vocabulary. And I especially don't want to be sued for that!

Throughout my journalistic career, I've been continually impressed by the power of language. Even in its absence it is powerful! Once, while covering a church sex scandal, I neglected to mention that the victim was suing the priest personally, as well as suing the priest's church. The victim's friends, upon reading in the paper that the lawsuit was against the priest's church, assumed the victim was only going after the church and thus the church's deeper pockets - and therefore was uninterested in true justice at all. The simple oversight on my part equaled a loss of face for my source - and that is irrecoverable.

Prose can always be misunderstood - and it's the job of a good writer to try to diminish that in whatever way possible. If clarity is our main goal, then, a balance must be struck between the creativity that allows the further expression of an idea, and the grammar rules that bind word usage.

And maybe how strict our usage gets should depend on the value of the context. For example - how important is it, really, if I say to my friend, "That commercial for Aquafresh infers it's the best toothpaste brand ever" when what I really mean is implies? My point is still succinct and clear no matter the construction. But if I write in an article that President Obama infers (surmises) that Putin is an asshole, that's quite different from implies (suggests). Implies assigns a verbal action on the part of the president, and infers suggests a thought process that may or may not be oral at all... and so, with the wrong word, I could end up either putting words in the president's mouth or taking them away. Libel suit, anyone?

Well... that's a pretty drastic example. But editors do more than merely clarify meaning through grammar and word usage. They fact-check, they quote-check, and generally ensure truth and accuracy are not forgotten. If Sarah Palin had a good solid editor looking over her speeches, maybe she would have sounded less like an idiot when the pundits descended. (Maybe.)

The truth is, wherever you find as much power as there exists in language, you will find both corruption and watchdogs. I like to think both corrupter and defender play part in the joy of language. Accurate language brings us closer to truth, and few things are so joyous as a well-written story that rings with truth, and breathes life to truth, and celebrates truth. That is the joy of language.