Stephen Fry vs. Language Pedants

If you’ve not already seen Matt Rogers‘ brilliant kinetic typography video of Stephen Fry‘s critique of linguistic pedantry, then you’ll want to watch it.  And if you have already seen it, then you’ll want to watch it again.

Before my fellow teachers raise an objection to Stephen Fry’s injunction that writers be less constrained by rules, I think it important to note that Fry does acknowledge that there are times when greater formality is appropriate, even necessary.  As he puts it, “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up, too.  You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”  The reason for doing so, as he says, is that “wildly original and excessively heterodox language” might, to an employer or an examiner, convey “the implication of not caring.”

Left implicit here is the related point that a writer needs to know the rules in order to break them.  Fry’s mastery of the rules is part of what makes his own bursts of heterodoxy and originality so effective.  The need to know the rules underwrites my own tendency — as a teacher — to enforce them, and sometimes to do so with perhaps greater strictness than Mr. Fry would recommend.  When I encounter a student who does know the rules well enough to break them, I do let the artful informality stand.  Indeed, one of the exams I graded last night had some rhetorical flourishes that conveyed the writer’s superior command of the rules.  Alas, many others conveyed confusion over such basics as the uses of an apostrophe.  But, in an exam situation, I’m less stringent than I am when grading a formal paper.  Time constraints prevent adequate proofreading.  So, while I may mark such an error, I’m highly unlikely to deduct points on an exam.  On a formal paper, however, these errors would certainly affect the student’s grade.

But I do love Fry’s argument for “verbal freshness,” in no small part because it embodies the principles that it advocates.  In his critique of the usage police, he asks of them, “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?  Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?  Do they?  I doubt it.”  But Fry does, and more power to him.  Here’s to vibrant heterodoxy!

2 Comments »

  1. Irene Ward Said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Phil,

    Thinking about language activities for children’s tours at the BMA, and this inspired me to devise an activity using word play and an art object. I know that besides Dr. S, there must be great poetry for kids that has wonderful word play– Can you get me started on where to find some?

  2. John Tirro Said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    Hi Phil,

    One of our students at Tyson House just finished leading a weekly discussion of Terry Eagleton’s On Evil and is about to start a series on Foucault. To go with that, I’m starting a Bible study on Paul’s concept of “powers and principalities,” using Walter Wink’s understanding of those as societal forces, governing expectations, etc. Seems like the Fry video might be a good starting point for conversation.

    Thanks for sharing!
    John

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