Thursday, June 09, 2011

Am I a language pedant; in Stephen Fry's word, a "loser"?


Some friends -- she was a high school classmate, he's a retired teacher and published poet -- sent me the above clip. I don't think they sent it in reaction to anything I wrote here or to them, or said, but just because they thought I'd enjoy it. It is a clever piece, and the moving, nay dancing. typography is a joy. I agree with about ninety percent of what Fry says. Where he made me wince was his reference to those who decry the misuse of apostrophes, whom he specifically singled out as "losers." For a moment, I had the horrid feeling he might have seen this post.

I'd like to think that I'm not some fusty language pedant. I'll confess to having weighed in on the "fewer/less" imbroglio, which I now regret. It's not only a losing battle, but one not worth fighting. I try to keep my own writing free of split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions (unless, in the latter instance, it results in a clumsy construction; see Winston Churchill's rejoinder to someone who tried to correct his grammar). Nevertheless, I don't fault others for these things, and am glad to allow Enterprise and her crew "to boldly go". I have no problem with the verbing of nouns, including the verb "to verb". My wife, an archivist, takes umbrage at "archive" as a verb. Again, I think it's a losing battle, especially in the age of computers, when one can "archive" with a click or a keystroke.

There are some things up with which (nodding to Sir Winston) I will not put. One is the misuse of apostrophes. I disagree with Fry if he thinks this is an example of something fresh or invigorating, like a clever neologism or the use of a word in a new context. It's just wrong, and it does harm to clarity. Perhaps it's "elitist" to call someone for not knowing the rules, but so be it. Fry seems to contradict himself. At first he says those who object to the creative use of language do so on the grounds that such usage is elitist, in which instance he allies himself with the elitists. Then, without using the e-word, he implies that those who object to incorrect apostrophe usage are guilty of snobbery. I plead guilty.