Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Beyond Grammar and Spelling

NOTE: The following eight articles are cited in my essay "A Matter of Perspective, or, Not So Off-Topic After All". As they were originally posted in my now defunct blog Random Notes, I am reproducing them here.

I have written several posts in the past complaining about the sad state of spelling and grammar on the internet*, and arguing that by relaxing standards too far we have allowed language to become incomprehensible or misleading. (I also wrote about the bizarre practice of "gender neutral language", which is another means of making language less informative in order to maintain PC sensibilities.)

I have now run across an new type of error, one for which I have no real term. It is not exactly an error of grammar, and certainly not of spelling, but it does seem to fall in the same general topic. I would call it "improper synecdoche" if I thought any of my readers would understand what I meant, but, first, that name is not at all clear and, second, many time it is not actually a synecdoche, that is just one of the many forms it takes. So, for lack of a better description, I will call it the "you know what I mean" error.

Let me give an example, to perhaps make this a bit more clear. I was reading criticism of a film on the IMDB message boards, when I ran across a commenter who was offended by the "overt Christian" symbols. The list of such included "Ezekiel's wheel".I could not resist pointing out that Ezekiel, being a Jewish prophet, was not exactly an overtly Christian writer. Surprisingly, the original author replied by insulting me, and then saying that of course it was overtly Christian, just as was the concept of heaven.

At first I was puzzled, explaining "heaven" exists in nearly every religion which does not include reincarnation (and even a few which do), and that an idea could not be "overtly Christian" if it appeared in other faiths. But, after I posted this response, I realized why the author and I seemed to have such trouble understanding one another.

And this is where the term "improper synecdoche" arises. Synecdoche, for the many who do not recall high school Latin (or never took it) is the rhetorical device of using a part to mean the whole. For example, "they burned the roofs" for burning down houses, or the way that some Chinese dialects use the word for "rice" to mean "food" in general. And, in this case, the author, for whatever reason, was using the word "Christian" to represent all religions. Now, I am unclear whether the author is simply unaware that there are other religions, doe snot know how many beliefs are shared between Christianity and other faiths, or is simply being lazy, and it doesn't matter. By using "Christianity" to mean "religion" he is creating lots of needless confusion*.

I have seen this before, and, int he past, when I have tried to correct it, I have met with angry dismissal. In fact, it is this history of angry dismissal which gave me the other name for this error, the "you know what I mean" error, as that is the almost inevitable reply. In the past, when I have pointed out that someone is using a specific term in place of a more general one, the writer has angrily brushed off my comment with the response "You know what mean", or "everyone knows what I was saying." I used to respond by pointing out we obviously did not, or else I would not have been so confused, but, having learned that such responses bring only more angry replies, I have stopped bothering.

The reason I mention this is that it seems to be a problem to which political discourse is particularly vulnerable. "Republicans" come to mean all conservatives, "neocons" come to mean anyone who supports military action, and so on. Often political debate becomes almost impossible to understand as terms are misused in this way. (And also in the reverse, where a more general term is used to mean the more narrow, such as "Conservatives" to represent one very small subset of conservative beliefs.) This tendency to use a specific term to mean the large containing group is also an easy way to smuggle in assumptions, either intentionally or accidentally. For example, when you use "Republican" to mean all conservatives, then you can ascribe any Republican belief or action, even the most liberal Specter vote, to conservatives as a whole. And so the argument often shifts back and forth between real conservative beliefs and those of the Republican party. (I won't even begin to explain how the ascription of beliefs of either liberal Jews or Zionists to Jews as a whole is often sued to draw the most loathsome of anitsemitic conclusions**.)

I suppose there really is little more to say on this topic. The only way to avoid it is to refuse to accept the arguments of those who use it, to point out to them that Republicans and conservatives are not identical, that not everyone supporting the war is their caricature neocon, and so on. So, I suppose this essay is little more than a warning to be cautious, lest we accept such spurious arguments. When someone tries to use a word in a way that seems unusual, it is probably good to ask them exactly what they mean, even if such questions annoy them, as it is almost certain that when you feel a word is being used strangely, the person speaking is trying to slip something by you.


* Yes, I am well aware I make frequent typos, making me an unlikely champion for spelling and grammar. I also have a penchant for sentence fragments. However, I am well aware of the rules I am breaking and generally only allow myself to violate them when I am sure the improper usage is more clear than the proper usage. My criticism is of those who not only don't even know these rules exist, but use words in such a way that their point is incomprehensible.

** To be clear, I have no complaints with Zionism. What I meant in the sentence above is that these individuals will take the views of liberal Jews or their caricature of zionists (often drawn from an exaggeration of groups like the JDL), and use them to describe all Jews. Not that the people doing so would have a problem simply creating outright Jewish stereotypes, but this method allows them to deceive others, convincing those not open to antisemitic conclusions that these arguments somehow amke sense. It is one fot he many way the myth of the "Israel Lobby" has been spread so easily.


My earlier writing on spelling, grammar, and "gender neutral language" are:
Spelling Nazi
Badly Chosen PC Words
Why Worry About Grammar?
Spelling Nazi Part 2
Why Spelling Matters (Again)
Spelling Nazi Part 3
It Warm's The Cockle's of my "Heart"
Tiny Grammar Gripe 
A Question About Language
Grammar Nazi Extra 
Poor Grasp of the Meaning of Hypocrisy 
Pronunciation Nazi 
Grammar Nazi 
A Grammar Nazi Rerun
Book Reviews? Calling All Readers
Oh No, Not Again
Why Spelling Matters, One More Time
This is not, strictly speaking, in the same category, being more akin to "A Most Dishonest Commercial", "A Problem With Amateur Historians", "How to Create Poor People", "Mistaking Improvement for Problem", "Atheism's Circular Reasoning", "Again Improving Science Misleads", "Debunking "Debunking Global Cooling"" or "Mumia, the DaVinci Code, Full Body Scans, and Loose Change - How Conspiracy Theories Arise", those being posts on improper methods of argument. Then again, bad spelling and grammar often leads to bad arguments as well, so perhaps it is appropriate to list both.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/05/15.    

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