October 2008 Archives

Do Linguists Believe in "Good Writing"?


An interesting question I was asked on a linguistics survey was whether I distinguished "good writing" versus "bad writing". For most of the college-educated crowd, the answer is obviously "yes", but for a linguist, the answer is not obvious.

Linguists are known for focusing on descriptive language or "English as she is spoke", and frown upon fussy folks mocking fellow citizens for using non-standard grammatical forms. Yet...all practicing linguists make a living writing articles, and on my day job as an instructional designer, I routinely write technical documentation. Don't we want to make ourselves understood? Of course!.

So yes - I agree there is good writing, but what are my criteria if not "grammar"? Well, just as all the writing guides tell us, writers need to be clear and hopefully concise. Also, like the guides say, you have to target your writing for your audience. For instance, a "how-to" document written for every day users which uses unfamiliar jargon is not good writing, no matter how precisely correct the choice of terms are. Yet if a document is targeted towards a specialized audience, it would be critical to use the jargon correctly.

An interesting difference between my conception of "good writing" versus that of a non-linguistis that I think you can be a good "writer" (or at least an excellent communicator) in either standard English or non-standard English.

One of the more insightful articles on sociolinguistics I read as an undergraduate pointed out that politicians who relied exclusively on educated forms could sound stuffy or out of touch to some of the "common folks" while politicians, like Ross Perot, who mixed in some non-standard forms could sound more "in touch" with real life. Of course, if this strategy is not deployed properly, there is a tremendous risk of non-standard forms being equated with "stupid".

One final note about Standard English and the linguistic community - although linguists all respect non-standard grammar, I have yet to meet an American-born linguist who was NOT fluent in standard English (at least in terms of syntax). This iincludes specialists in forms such as AAVE, Californian English, "Spanglish" and Appalachian English. Native speakers in these forms are bilingual in Standard English if they reached the Ph.D. level of education.

Whatever else we may be speaking, even linguists feel the pressure to maintain one foot well within the standard language camp.

The "Black Angi" Cattle


A few entries ago, I discussed some interesting "neo-classical" plurals I have heard like octopi, ommnibi and apparata. To this one I have to add Angi which is a collective plural for a herd of Black Angus cows (Anguses?).

This is a family term which is "humorous" because we don't really think it's an actual learned one, just one made up based on the final -us. But it's especially interesting because Angus is neither Latin or Greek, but Gaelic. Still there is a "rule" in play which is "expanding" its range. Or, more accurately, the constraint that should rule Angi because it is not in the classical lexicon is fairly weak.

I have to confess that Anguses (the regular plural, like Holsteins and Jerseys) does not sound very acceptable either. There is a tension in my grammar about which form should be used, or maybe the "correct" plural is actually the zero plural Angus (like deer) or only Angus cows. It's odd when a linguist can't form a simple plural.