19 November, 2006

Dumber and Dumber

You know, Dolly Parton once said, ‘Never watch anything dumber than you are.’ It’s pretty good advice, although very hard to achieve considering the state of modern film and television. It’s even hard to apply to reading these days. The editorial standards of most newspapers have slipped below the point where they irritate one beyond endurance, magazines are worse, and as for books! Well, let’s face it, most of them are written by people who are only barely literate and edited by people who are hardly better. Worst of all, of course, are advertisements. Mind you, writing advertising copy is probably the kind of job you can only do if you don’t have the intelligence to realize what blight on civilization you have become. The literacy of most advertising ranks just a step or two above text messages, somewhere below emails and blogs.

Partly, it’s a failure of intelligence. Let’s face it, spelling and grammar are just too hard for most people. But it is also a failure of education. I’ve known some reasonably bright people who were pathetically unable to string two words together. Partly it’s the fault of the Americans. Their attempt to ‘simplify’ spelling many years ago has left them with a semi-phonetic spelling system which has thrown away most of our language’s etymology, making it impossible for American children to learn spelling by understanding the linguistic and historical roots of words. It was a mistake on a global scale since they now export their impoverished version of English to the world and drone countries like Australia parrot American as if it were their own language.

Yet there’s something much more serious going on. There’s a tendency for people – even professional writers – not to care about expressing themselves correctly. They don’t think that they need to worry about precision because people will know what they mean. They communicate without care. In itself, not so bad, but if people are not trying clearly to express what they mean, my suspicion is that they are not trying hard to be clear about what they mean, that their thinking itself is sloppy and careless. And it certainly seems to be the case.

As a very minor example of this very significant problem, consider plurals. People today have enormous difficulty with plurality. They cannot distinguish phenomenon from phenomena, fewer from less, and words like fora and schemata are almost gone from the language. Worse than these (which, after all, are probably just laziness) is the inability to use collective nouns as singular (the crowd are chanting, everybody who lives here are poor) and to use the names of singular entities as plurals (Manchester United are pleased with the result, the Government are voting on the bill, Microsoft are releasing Vista in January). These examples are not just sloppiness with language but sloppiness of thought – the inability to distinguish a collective entity from its members.

Even in something so apparently trivial, can be traced our first steps on the slippery slope to losing all the hard-won benefits of civilization and universal education. If we let our language fall into ruin, we let our ability to think clearly fall with it.

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