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Rules and/or tools for the language: Being right vs. being in relationship

our cat bellaIn reading The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary by David Skinner, with attention to the Webster’s III dictionary that is the subject of The Story of Ain’t, I have been musing on the difference between a labyrinth and a maze.jon books in review 150x

A labyrinth, I know from personal experience, is a geometric path meant to promote an attitude of prayer and meditation.

A maze, I know from various depictions in movies such as The Shining, is a random set of paths meant to frustrate you to the point of angry prayers of the I give up, so help me sort.

The distinction between labyrinth and maze, in itself, is a contrast worthy of attention, but a related and larger issue has been bothering me for some time — the question of whether language is best-served, and whether we as users of language are best-served, by adherence to rules that govern our  use of words or by celebration of diversity that sees words as tools in our service.

What happens when each person is the arbiter of standard usage?

How importance is it that the difference between a labyrinth and a maze gets no acknowledgment in a dictionary as widely consulted as Webster’s III?

I have some thoughts.

I bounce between two poles – permissive celebration of the power and vitality of language (tools) and prescriptive grumbling about the poor state of the language (rules).

I bear inside me a lifetime of attention to the details of words. I can edit a piece of writing to conform to the conventions of standard English usage, which is for me a source of pride, a source of income, and a source of fierce protective feelings.

I want to celebrate the music of the street.

I want to distinguish between the regular beauty of a labyrinth and the maddening convolutions of the maze.

I want both rules and tools.

I want your books and my books to be free of typos and glaring inaccuracies based on simple ignorance or inattention.

I want speakers and writers to be free to communicate with me without my sneering and grumbling striking them dumb.

In sitting with these desires, I have come up with this idea –

When I write, I will make sure that my writing is the best that it can be. When I read, I will seek to find the deeper levels of intent that the writer has. If I notice typos or poor usage, by my standards, I will bracket those concerns and look for the peace hidden in the confusion. Above all, I will cease and desist in pointing out the blemishes that I see in others.

In the end, I am not worried at all about the state of language. I am concerned with the ability of each of us to communicate what is most dear, in a way that others can apprehend, appreciate, and respond to.

I will split infinitives, I will make mistakes, I will be one who stands with real people and seeks to understand their strange and wonderful songs.

I ain’t no elitist. I ain’t no elitist. I ain’t no elitist.

You know what I mean.

I would rather be in relationship than right.


The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary by David Skinner is available in hardcover on Amazon. As is Webster’s III.

Note: I do not embed any link to an associate account when I link to books on Amazon or anywhere else.

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2 Responses to Rules and/or tools for the language: Being right vs. being in relationship

  1. anon 3 November 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Nice work.
    Here with what I read last night on rules by one of our ancestial makers of tools:
    We must make up our minds what we mean by usage. If it is defined merely as the practice of the majority, we shall have a very dangerous rule affecting not merely style but life as well, a far more serious matter. (Safire, quoting Quintilian, Right Word, Right Place, Right Time)
    The parallel of // merely // not merely // may be underutilized. I offer for example: (speaker gazing into a daisy) she merely loves me, she loves not merely me not . . .

    • Jon Rieley-Goddard 3 November 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      Words, Safire might say, can draw blood, cause wounds.
      Got Safire’s Sleeper Spy from Amazon the other day.
      She merely loves me, she merely loves me not, she merely … .

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