Some Thoughts on Linguistic Prescriptivism and Manners

by Mark English

A commenter’s disapproving reference to a ‘comma splice’ in a discussion thread dealing with America’s increasingly polarized social and political environment [1] brought to mind Karl Kraus, the Viennese journalist and writer; and, in particular, this famous story about a 1932 meeting (told by the composer Ernst Křenek):

‘At a time when people were generally decrying the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai, I met Karl Kraus struggling over one of his famous comma problems. He said something like: “I know that everything is futile when the house is burning. But I have to do this, as long as it is at all possible; for if those who were supposed to look after commas had always made sure they were in the right place, Shanghai would not be burning.” ’ [2]

It’s a nice story, and one has the sense that it is saying something deep and wise which goes well beyond narrow questions of style and the written word. Or you could read it literally. After all, Kraus did see linguistic style as having a deep moral dimension.

Kraus’s view could be seen as an extreme example of a very common phenomenon: that someone who is personally committed to something tends to overemphasize the general significance of whatever it is they are committed to. So someone who has diligently learned and mastered the grammar, syntax and stylistic niceties of his or her native language will be tempted to overemphasize the significance of these things: it is in their personal interest (status-wise) that such matters be seen to be important. But are they? Are conventions of syntax and style important?

Well, for a start, anything which facilitates clear and effective communication is uncontroversially good; and following standard grammatical and stylistic practices does minimize confusion and misunderstanding in most contexts.

But communication is more than the communication of explicit content: how something is said is often more significant than what is said. Certain words or phrases or other stylistic (or paralinguistic) factors convey attitudes and may, for example, serve as markers of identity. Judgments will be made on the basis of word choice and syntax etc. just as they are about accent and manners generally.

Much is made in linguistics of the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive approaches. It’s an important distinction, obviously, but there has been a tendency in professional circles to overreact against any suggestion that there is a ‘correct’ way of saying anything. Modern linguists have generally sought to distance themselves not only from from old-fashioned prescriptive grammarians and school teachers (with their admonitions about split infinitives, comma splices and dangling participles), but also – unfortunately, in my view – from the rich and powerful philological tradition with its historical and, at times, literary preoccupations.

Though there’s no point in trying to cling to outdated forms of expression – which just sound pompous and silly – standard (‘prestige’) forms still exist. And, typically, these are the forms that ordinary people want to know about when they look up dictionaries or ask questions about usage on language forums.

There is no real conflict between description and prescription. It’s just that the prescriptive imperative should always be seen as implicitly hypothetical. So if you want to use the form used by most educated speakers, then say it like this; if you want to signify allegiance to a certain subculture, say it like that.

In the latter case, it may be that the desired forms will not appear in standard reference sources or even in alternative sources relating to new colloquial forms and will have to be learned via direct, informal contact with speakers. In this case, obviously the desire to belong (or appear to belong) to a particular group is competing with (and usually overriding) the desire to communicate content to a wider audience. Fine. Language has many uses.

As I suggested above, there is a strong parallel between language use and general manners. Both involve behaviors which convey information. Both have an aesthetic dimension. Both involve cultural norms. And both have a descriptive as well as a normative (or prescriptive) aspect.

Just as individuals grow up within a particular language community (speaking a particular variety of English, say) so they grow up learning a particular set of manners. And, just as they make choices along the way concerning linguistic norms (adopting some, rejecting others), so they make choices about more general ways of acting and interacting based on social and aesthetic factors. These choices reflect the development of an individual’s personal identity, i.e. how he or she defines himself/herself in relation to others. Individuals will seek to be seen to be associated with certain cultural groups and to distance themselves from others (even groups to which they actually belong).

There can be a strong class angle to all of this, and often choices are driven by snobbery or inverted snobbery. Children from privileged backgrounds, for example, don’t necessarily want to be seen to advertise the fact, but nor do they want to forego the benefits.

You could raise all sorts of moral and political issues if you wanted to: about hypocrisy and deception and ideological questions about class divisions etc.. But I would prefer to sidestep such questions and keep the perspective largely descriptive. Too much moralizing would only distort the picture.

As I see it, class-based and similar structures are an inevitable and normal part of life. In fact, much human interaction, linguistic and general, is only explicable in terms of status-seeking, deception (benign or malign) and manipulation (which likewise can be relatively benign as well as harmful).

But let me finish by looking briefly at a very specific and important area of manners which is (if you set aside the ‘what’ and focus on the ‘how’) relatively neutral from a moral point of view: eating habits. Though the class angle inevitably impinges here as it does in all areas of manners, my focus is not on this but rather on the aesthetics and practical psychology of eating.

Obviously, many of the old prescriptions don’t hold. Dining was one of the areas covered in a bizarre little book about manners which was amongst my school textbooks (in fifth grade, I think it was). There were instructions about how to behave “at table” and what eating implements to use for what. There was also a very strange remark about not throwing bones about! (I suspect the author’s experiences related more to boarding-school situations than typical family dinners or dinner parties.)

I was intrigued also by a more recent (and rather more sane and stylish) attempt to pontificate on the manners and etiquette of eating. I am thinking of a column Lucy Kellaway wrote for the Financial Times [3] saying how she had stopped snacking at her desk at work and was now an enthusiastic convert to restaurant reviewer AA Gill’s eating guidelines according to which you can eat as much as you like of anything so long as you follow these seven rules:

  1. Don’t eat anything which can’t be eaten with a knife and fork.
  1. Eat at a table with a set place, preferably facing someone else who is also eating.
  1. Never eat because you are hungry: always eat because it is lunchtime.
  1. Never eat standing up.
  1. Never eat anything with, or off, plastic or cardboard.
  1. Never eat with a screen in the same room.
  1. All meals must have at least two courses, except breakfast.

I don’t know about all the specifics of these rules (I like some more than others) and I know that people are put off by the whole idea of prescriptive rules. But it is well to remember that conventions (or patterns of behavior) and constraints of one kind or another can usually be interpreted in terms of rule-following; and such patterns and constraints apply to virtually all aspects of human behavior. We can’t get away from rules, in other words, and the prescriptive element (explicit or implicit) is an intrinsic part of social existence. The choice is not between rules and no rules but between these rules and those rules.

Which eating rules, then, look attractive? Gill’s #5 and #6 look good to me. I also like #3. And maybe #2 and #7. The obvious criticism relates to practicalities (and cost). Gill is not short of a penny and, at the FT, Kellaway has access to a pleasant staff cafeteria to tempt her from her desk.

The eating (or not-eating) rule I am most committed to is not explicitly stated by Gill, though it could be seen to be implicit in his rules #3 and #4. It is a rule that was drummed into generations of schoolchildren by their teachers about not eating while walking in the street. I like it because it is not too difficult to keep to and yet it is symbolically important because it works against those insidious (and often ugly) tendencies towards instant gratification which seem to be ever more prevalent.

No rule is absolute, however, and movie buffs will recall the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s [4] in which Audrey Hepburn flouts my rule and most of AA Gill’s. But she does so with great style. (Bear in mind that it is only the rich, rule-based context of the story’s social milieu which makes Holly Golightly’s stylish kind of rule-breaking possible.)

Our normal focus, of course, should never be on negative rules but rather on the wider social, psychological and maybe aesthetic dimensions of behavior; in this case, on the rituals associated with food and drink. As Kellaway points out, “food itself is curiously forgettable; what is not forgettable is the anticipation and the ritual.”

Manners are sometimes seen to be trivial because they are often quite arbitrary and could just as well be otherwise; but they are not trivial. They are necessary (in some form or another) and constitute a large part of the social fabric of our lives. Seemingly arbitrary codes can express deep values and enhance psychological security.

Rituals of eating and drinking, like habits of speaking and writing (and all other culturally significant forms of behavior), not only contribute to defining our social and cultural identity; they also – at least when they are functioning well – help to give us a sense of security, satisfaction and self-mastery.

Did Karl Kraus eat at his desk, I wonder? I suspect not… While walking in the street? In early-20th century Vienna? No way.

NOTES

1.https://theelectricagora.com/2016/03/20/provocations-5/comment-page-1/#comments

  1. Taken from the Wikipedia entry for Karl Kraus.
  1. I can’t provide a link without a paywall. I read it in hard copy when it was first published and made a few notes. Try googling the author’s name and ‘rules of eating’ and you may get it.

4.https://youtu.be/1JfS90u-1g8

Categories: Essay, Essays, Uncategorized

47 Comments »

  1. Mark: I love it. Really good. I’ll have some things to say about rules and language a little later. One thing that strikes me, however, is the really bizarre list of eating rules that you copied. It’s hard to believe that a food critic wrote these, if only because some seem so flat-out ignorant regarding world cuisine. Indeed, I would say that most of them are either demonstrably ignorant or stupid.

    1. Don’t eat anything that cannot be eaten with a knife and fork. What could this possibly mean? Sushi? Sandwiches? Whole countries worth of cuisine, in which one scoops up food with flatbread? Has this critic actually ever eaten anywhere, other than three blocks from his house?

    4. Never eat standing up. Well, I guess we can kiss the San Gennaro festival goodbye. Of course, you’re also kissing goodbye some of the best food on the planet.

    http://www.littleitalynyc.com/sg_page2.asp

    5. Never eat anything with, or off, plastic or cardboard. Well, there goes every picnic in the world. Also, see (4).

    2. Eat at a table with a set place, preferably facing someone else who is also eating. See (5).

    3. Never eat because you are hungry: always eat because it is lunchtime. So, if I’m not hungry at lunchtime, I should force myself to eat anyway? Is this a joke?

    Seriously, the rules are almost embarrassing to read, they make so little sense. If this food critic was working for me, I’d fire him immediately on the grounds that he is too ignorant about food and eating to hold the job. Indeed, the only rule on the list that makes any sense at all is (6).

    More on the important stuff, re: language and rules, later.

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  2. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

    I heard NRA thinks the comma’s matter.

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  3. Dan,

    You’re taking the ‘eating guideline rules’ way too seriously. I checked up on the two writers involved. Kellaway is a humorist, social commentator, and occasional outright satirist of business office etiquette. I wasn’t able to fine the exact article, but did find some very good reads of hers at the Irish Times, which cross-posts some of her FT material. AA Gill (whose writing is much harder to find on the internet) is a notorious eccentric and provocateur, with an acerbic wit. I’m taking the ‘rules of eating’ were written with tongue in cheek, and passed on with tongue in cheek. (Gill is one of those dining critics who has actually travelled specifically to taste foreign cuisine first hand.)

    (I’m suddenly reminded of the wonderful scene in Tampopo, wherein the etiquette teacher is instructing her Japanese students not to ‘slurp’ Italian spaghetti, when a Westerner in the same restaurant begins to slurp away very loudly; eventually the students succumb to the pleasures of slurping, until the teacher herself finally joins in. Rules having any vitality are never arbitrary, but they are seldom fixed.)

    Mark,

    An enjoyable piece.

    Mr. Grant, the Dean of English at my Junior High was one of those old grammarians, and he made life for hell for me – and I wasn’t even in any of his own classes, I just wrote a couple articles for the school literary magazine. Then I helped start an underground newspaper (remember those from the ’60s?) and then he stopped being nice. Fortunately I transferred to a High School out of his reach the following year.

    I note this because the Mr. Grants of this world left a very sour taste with a lot of young writers in my generation, and I think the intentionally transgressive nature of some of their writing was partly in response to this. (I suspect such has been a recurrent phenomenon since grammar became a major field of instruction, in, I think, the 17th century). So: another truism: once rules become fixed, then it is fair to say they are ‘made to be broken.’

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  4. Dan,
    I wouldn’t call it a joke, but both Kellaway and Gill deploy considerable irony. And Gill may have been writing specifically of rules he follows in professional visits to restaurants in England. (He notes in one interview, remarking on New York City, that he loves there that one can grab a slice of pizza , which would probably mean eating without knife and fork, and even possibly eating standing up.)

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  5. Dan and ejwinner

    Kellaway was pretty serious on this, I think, even if it was understood that the rules were overstated (see below). And I’m certain she was quite serious about the importance of ritual. There is always a kind of ‘not to be taken *too* seriously’ angle to her kind of writing, but she often writes (and I think writes best) when she is giving voice to her deep personal convictions. (Probably because I share most of them!)

    As ejw points out, Gill certainly likes to provoke. Exaggeration and overstatement are essential components of his journalistic modus operandi. He also likes to insult people (and is quite good at it).

    I would disagree with Dan on Gill’s rule 3. I think the spirit of it is sound. It’s not so much about eating at meal time as *not* eating at other times (in which case you’ll probably be hungry at meal time anyway).

    The key point, I think, is that eating when you’re hungry makes eating into something individualistic rather than something shared or social.

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  6. Mark,
    Interesting reply; but compelling to read Kellaway’s text. What is the specific title, perhaps it’s available at the Irish Times?

    Eating is socially problematic, because its a necessity of life; and yet, you’re right, the rituals surrounding it encompass a great deal of social desires and expectations. (If there’s hunger, and no necessity to delay gratification, I will simply eat, and all others be damned. But if I have appointment with friends, then I can delay quite a number of hours while waiting to be with them.)

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  7. Thanks by the way for the positive words, Dan and ej.

    ejwinner

    I’m not averse to truisms (so long as they are true). Rules are made to be broken? Sure. This is not unrelated to the idea of the exception proving the rule, I think.

    I think there can be and often is a creative tension between conservative (‘Mr Grant’-type) forces and nonconformists, rebels, radicals et al.. (As in early 20th-century Vienna.)

    synred

    Yes it can get kinda serious in constitutional and legal contexts.

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  8. Ej

    Title: I want to put my whole workplace on a new diet.

    (I got it at the FT as before by googling ‘rules of eating’ and Lucy Kellaway, but Google works differently for different users and regions, I think.)

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  9. Synred, an interesting point, the question being whether punctuation, in and of itself, can bring clarity to an ambiguously phrased construction. When in doubt, rewrite. As John Paul Stevens suggests:

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-five-extra-words-that-can-fix-the-second-amendment/2014/04/11/f8a19578-b8fa-11e3-96ae-f2c36d2b1245_story.html

    Of course, Stevens brings his own legal orientation and interpretation of intent into his revision, one with which I happen to agree. It, nevertheless, raises a secondary matter: Whether the writer or his intended audience bears the greater burden to ensure that what is conveyed is understood in language intended to be both explicative and prescriptive.

    Mark, since I was the commentator who made the “disapproving reference to a ‘comma splice’” and don’t consider myself a strict “grammarian,” let me try to add some context here by providing my exact words: “His second sentence is a mouthful, what with the comma splice and all.”

    In a more formal setting, my language could be easily be blue-penciled as employing idiom and colloquialisms such as “mouthful,” “what with,” and “and all.” But the setting here is informal, and so the larger question is does it serve a valid purpose and does it have some merit. The major emphasis was on “mouthful.” The “common splice” error is mostly symptomatic of a larger problem: clarity. Here is the exact “sentence” that led to my comment:

    “I also think the politics of shame and social stigma (that is fundamental to right-on slacktivism) is at its core anti-democratic, it is not a desire to win hearts and minds with argument but a fleeting seizure of power through social coercion which is almost guaranteed to result in precisely the kinds of backlash that one witnesses (I should flag up that such easy analysis inevitably misses a crucial economic component and in my mind the vast opposition to a more re-distributional tax system also leads to inevitable upheavals of the social order).”

    Yes, to my mind, this “construction” is awful, but the punctuation error is the least of its problems. The construction frustrates the reader. In fact, it was only in my attempt to unpack its meaning that I noted the comma spice. Put another way, you could strip away all the punctuation–the comma and the parentheses–and it would hardly detract from the self-indulgence of the construction.

    Setting aside allowances granted to creative writing, it is not incumbent on the reader to “figure out” what a piece of exposition means or how it is to be understood. Granted, this claim must be qualified by accounting for differences in subject matter. But that is not the case here. In fact, the comment in question created confusion, as evidenced by the exchange between Dan K and callan (aka, designerspaces) who later claimed, “I still reserve my right to weird, visceral emotional reaction too.” That was the point? Then, can I claim the right to ignore it?

    I get your point about class distinctions and status seeking, but this can easily become an unnecessary and self-serving rationalization that cuts both ways. Although I think most of us would agree that standard usage, or what some call literacy, changes over time, the underlying motive is to encourage effective communication. As for matters of punctuation, the rules change as well, but are mainly devised to supply cues that are employed in spoken language, such as gesticulation, facial cues, i

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mark English wrote:

    the prescriptive imperative should always be seen as implicitly hypothetical. So if you want to use the form used by most educated speakers, then say it like this; if you want to signify allegiance to a certain subculture, say it like that.

    ————————————————————————

    If this means that you are suggesting there is an inherent contextual relativism in linguistic rules, than I agree with you 100%. If not, I might disagree, but you’d have to clarify.

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  11. Sorry, I guess I exceeded the prescribed length for a comment. I was almost finished. To continue:

    such as gesticulation, facial cues, and inflections of tone, that the printed word lacks. I have mixed feelings about the common use of emoticons, for example, in social media. But I think they are here to stay.

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  12. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed

    The constitution and bill of rights are often ‘unconstitutional vague’. I suspect this was deliberate in order to get them passed in all 13 colonies.

    Leaves us with a mess.

    I don’t understand how the literalist get from ‘the people’ to ‘a person’ though. Justice Stevens version is much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Mr.Kaufman,

    I’m surprised you write

    “3. Never eat because you are hungry: always eat because it is lunchtime. So, if I’m not hungry at lunchtime, I should force myself to eat anyway? Is this a joke?”

    It’s not a joke. All rules have exceptions – I’ll give one in a moment – but this is the soundest advice about eating one can imagine. It keeps you slim (if staying slim is a desire) but it also creates a community – at home, at the job, with friends. It means that people eat together, and eating together is a sacred ritual.
    I’m surprised by your reaction, because as far as I know you have a Jewish background. I read “Good as Gold” by Joseph Heller, in a certain sense also a book about the Jewish experience, and I remember the centrality of good food and eating together (“Not for them, the bland juices of the Anglo-Saxons …” – I’m quoting from memory).
    I fairly strictly adhere to this rule and it’s one of the things that made me discover the strange power of rituals. Rationally speaking, this particular ritual doesn’t make sense. I can’t explain to others why I don’t eat when I’m hungry and I do eat when it’s lunchtime – even if I’m not hungry. But it does make me feel superior. I’m always ashamed when I have to admit that – but I don’t feel guilt. Being ashamed and not feeling guilt, is a good definition of fun. Just think about sex – it was good when you’re ashamed of what you did, but don’t feel guilty.

    (*) I do eat when I’m cycling and the Man with the Hammer is at my heels. The most abject behavior is permitted to avoid an encounter with the Man with the Hammer, lunchtime or not. And I never refuse a slice of the cake that aunt Irma baked. It may be 3 pm, but refusing would be downright rude.

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  14. Thomas

    I take your point that the comma splice reference was parenthetical, and that your criticism of the passage in question was based on broader stylistic grounds. Forgive me if it looked like I was making fun of you; the slightly quaint-sounding term just jumped out at me (and reminded me of the Kraus story), that’s all.

    I get your point about class distinctions and status seeking, but this can easily become an unnecessary and self-serving rationalization that cuts both ways.

    I have the feeling I am being criticized here, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be guilty of. 🙂

    … Although I think most of us would agree that standard usage, or what some call literacy, changes over time, the underlying motive is to encourage effective communication.

    I agree that standard forms facilitate effective communication but they do other things (serve other functions) also. You are talking about motives: whose?

    As for matters of punctuation, the rules change as well, but are mainly devised to supply cues that are employed in spoken language…

    True enough, but then the conventions get formalized somewhat.

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  15. Dan

    … If this means that you are suggesting there is an inherent contextual relativism in linguistic rules, than I agree with you 100%. If not, I might disagree, but you’d have to clarify.

    I’m not clear what concerns you have here. In the bit you quote I am just making the point that a prescriptive approach can be seen to grow naturally out of a descriptive approach if the former is seen in terms of a hypothetical. A speaker or writer wants a certain outcome in terms of effective communication and/or self-presentation, e.g. wants to use (and be seen to use) a standard American form, or a standard British form, or a cool, colloquial form or whatever (this is the ‘if’ part); and will use reference sources etc. accordingly.

    David

    That’s very amusing – and interesting. Hepburn obviously had a deep commitment to some of those old rules.

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  16. Mark: Here’s what I was getting at. Some of my favorite books are ones in which great liberties are taken with conventional syntax. I am thinking of books like Burroughs’ “The Soft Machine” and “Naked Lunch,” Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and even Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

    That’s why I was asking whether you are essentially a contextualist regarding linguistic rules.

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  17. That whole ‘excerpt’ from the Wake may be a parody. I can’t find it in the Kindle version.

    As good as second city…

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  18. So actually it’s not a parody. It’s just hard to find via search because of Joyce’s idiosyncratic spelling.

    What this Clancy piece shows is how much the Wake needs to be read aloud. I wonder if that’s true of Ulysses too (though likely to a lesser extent).

    I tried several times to read Ulysses. On my most successful attempt I got through 100 pages.

    Here is much of the Clancy excerpt from the free Kindle version:

    Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s mau-rer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit to ofar — back for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy

    a waalworth of a skyerscape of most eyeful hoyth entowerly, erigenating from next to nothing and celescalating the himals and all, hierarchitec-titiptitoploftical, with a burning bush abob off its baubletop and with larrons o’toolers clittering up and tombles a’buckets clottering down. Of the first was he to bare arms and a name: Wassaily Boos-laeugh of Riesengeborg. His crest of huroldry, in vert with ancillars, troublant, argent, a hegoak, poursuivant, horrid, horned. His scutschum fessed, with archers strung, helio, of the second. Hootch is for husbandman handling his hoe. Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again!

    Joyce, James (2014-04-09). Finnegans Wake & Exiles (Timeless Wisdom Collection Book 1267) (Kindle Location 148). Business and Leadership Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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  19. Dan

    Here’s what I was getting at. Some of my favorite books are ones in which great liberties are taken with conventional syntax. I am thinking of books like Burroughs’ “The Soft Machine” and “Naked Lunch,” Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and even Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

    That’s why I was asking whether you are essentially a contextualist regarding linguistic rules.

    Still not sure what you’re meaning by the word ‘contextualist’. There may be a technical use of this word with which I am unfamiliar, but let me just try to unpack what (I think) you’re saying and how I might respond.

    So we’re talking fiction or New Journalism? I’m not well read in the latter, nor in American fiction. You’ll hate this: my two favourite American authors are John Updike and Patricia Highsmith. Both conservatives, syntactically and otherwise! I loved Catcher in the Rye. It was colloquial but the syntax was just standard colloquial syntax, no? (I don’t know what Salinger’s politics were.) I’ve certainly got no problem with writers using colloquial forms.

    On Joyce, I must admit, I prefer the early works. I’ve never liked that stream of consciousness stuff but this is personal taste, not literary judgment.

    The concept of ‘poetic license’ is a good one. Writers (if they are good) earn the right as it were to bend the conventional rules. And in certain instances I can enjoy this. I personally have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, but I recognize that other people enjoy it…

    I don’t know that you can take a really objective stance on this and judge whether syntactic idiosyncrasies are justified in a particular case. But I’m happy to let the principle of ‘poetic license’ apply to syntax, etc.

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  20. Mark, you understood me correctly. I was using ‘contextual’ in its ordinary sense. And it seems that you agree that there are contexts — in this case, specifically, literary ones — in which all manner of departures from syntactic and grammatical conventions are warranted. Whether one enjoys the result, of course, is subjective.

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  21. Hi Mark, an unusual but interesting piece.

    In the part on writing I was thrown by your use of the term “hypothetical” to move between descriptive and prescriptive. It seems cleared up by your discussion with Dan and I think “depends on context/purpose/intention” might have been better/clearer.

    In the part on eating… bah, these rules! If you at least removed the “nevers” and replaced them with “as a general habit try not to” they would make sense. But most of them seem off anyway.

    #1 – What’s wrong with spoons (no soup or peas?), or chopsticks (yeah you could use a fork but sticks are more classy), or hands (many breads, appetizers, and desserts are best held than cut and forked)? This is without getting into very good food where it is expected (by cultural expectations) to eat with the hands as Dan pointed out.

    #2&3 – I’ve known families with rules that at least one meal a week, if not at least one meal a day has to be formally set and with all members in attendance (whether you are hungry or not). There is something attractive about this. I even get trying to keep things in a social environment (even if one eats alone). But lunch? One is often restricted by where one works as to how one has to eat.

    #4/5 – Even if that’s your only choice? That said, I prefer to avoid these myself for comfort, messiness, and minimizing trash reasons. Otherwise it is classist nonsense.

    #6 – It depends what is meant by screen. If the idea is you should get away from your desk at the office in order to eat (so your work computer screen), ok. But I have no problems with eating while a TV or computer is running to watch entertainment (or something like that). Some say that reduces interaction which I think is just not true. You aren’t talking while chewing anyway, and you don’t normally talk during entertainment and that can still be considered social. Along those lines one of the really fun things when I was a kid was to go to the drive in where you ate and watched movies, and as an adult I liked going to the Brew & View in Chicago (a movie theater where you sat at tables to eat, drink, and talk while watching movies). Does this rule prescribe snacks at movies in general?

    #7 – I’m not sure why this rule exists. I tend to do this, but what does it serve?

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  22. Hi Couvent, I don’t see how only eating at lunchtime, especially if you have to even if you are not hungry, leads to keeping slim. That all depends on what and how much you eat at lunch (and any other meal).

    There has also been advice to avoid eating large meals, restricting oneself to small snacks routinely throughout the day. Then you don’t gorge, as most people do when restricted to meal times.

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  23. The Emily Post rule that you should hold fork in left hand, cut with knife in right and then switch fork to right to put the meat in your mouth always seemed nuts to me.

    But it does slow you down, so it might be good for digestion and conversation.

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  24. synred: Presumably part of the reason for the rules is so that we behave in a manner more becoming than apes. And for that, I’m largely glad.

    Mark: I don’t think we disagree, here, other than on what we like and don’t like. (And you are right: I loathe Updike.) But I also like plenty of writers who employ a more traditional syntax. Evelyn Waugh is probably in my top 5 list of favorite authors.

    I guess my view about rules in language is that different rules– or no rules — are apropos, given different aims. There are things I won’t do in an academic paper that I will do in an essay for EA. There are things I will do in Provocations that I won’t do in an essay. Now, given the range of writing that I typically cover, I will always obey the *basic* rules of grammaticality — of well-formedness — but I can think of a number of writers who do things, where even that should be abandoned. I’m currently being blown away by a new edition of Burrough’s “Soft Machine,” and there, even the basic rules of well-formedness have been abandoned.

    The question, then, is what sorts of things is one interested in seeing writers do? The broader your range of interests, the more flexibility you will grant to syntactic and grammatical invention. The narrower, the less. But what I can’t abide is someone trying to say, from some neutral vantage point, that there is a *right* way to write and a *wrong* way, if only because, inevitably, I can think of a writer ten times better than that person, who disagrees.

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  25. Presumably part of the reason for the rules is so that we behave in a manner more becoming than apes. And for that, I’m largely glad\

    I’d guess that Hunter-gathers behave ‘better’ than chimps. Something must be known about their etiquette at least for modern HG’s.

    Fire and cooking would have likely turned meals into a more social occasion then grabbing what you can get at the site of a kill. Though even Chimps have been known to share and can be taught (by humans) to eat at a table.

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  26. dbholmes

    Thanks.

    … In the part on eating… bah, these rules! If you at least removed the “nevers” and replaced them with “as a general habit try not to” they would make sense.

    They are written in a provocative way, sure. You are clearly less sympathetic to their general spirit than I am, but I am not pushing these particular rules strongly. I do think that eating in the street is generally pretty ugly and unnecessary however and people could survive quite well without doing it and even feel better about themselves. On one level, it’s very trivial; but in a broader sense there is something behind what I’m trying to say which is not trivial (about the nature and value of social conventions).

    #1 – What’s wrong with spoons (no soup or peas?)

    What? You eat peas with a spoon?? 🙂

    #2&3 – I’ve known families with rules that at least one meal a week, if not at least one meal a day has to be formally set and with all members in attendance (whether you are hungry or not). There is something attractive about this. I even get trying to keep things in a social environment (even if one eats alone). But lunch? One is often restricted by where one works as to how one has to eat.

    I agree with all this.

    #4/5 – Even if that’s your only choice? That said, I prefer to avoid these myself for comfort, messiness, and minimizing trash reasons. Otherwise it is classist nonsense.

    On the question of social class
    I suggest that the most insidious forms of social stratification are ones in which the ‘classes’ are not openly recognized. What matters most in my opinion is social mobility and arguably we have less of that today than we did.

    I am inclined to disagree with you about ‘screens’ though a bit of eating while watching a movie (at home, say) sounds fine to me.

    #7 – I’m not sure why this rule exists. I tend to do this, but what does it serve?

    I guess it’s mainly about ritual (but also variety in terms of food). More than one course punctuates the meal. First course [semicolon] second course… 🙂

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  27. Maybe spamming has changed it’s meaning. In my day it referred to automatically generated message trying to extract money from you honestly (ads) or dishonestly (Nigerian scams).

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  28. Synred raised some interesting questions.

    He referenced the book Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham in which traditional !Kung eating customs are described. They have strict politeness rules, and the author saw “no unmannerly behavior and no cheating and no encroachment about food… I found it moving to see so much restraint about taking food among people who are all thin and often hungry, for whom food is a constant source of anxiety.”

    He continues: “Such spontaneous etiquette is universal within functioning hunter-gather societies. Nothing like it is found in any other social species.”

    I’d say we’re losing something important here, especially in the Western world. The Chinese and other Asian peoples are doing rather better.

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  29. Dan

    I tend to see literary and artistic contexts as special; as connected to but also separate from other contexts, in the same way that children’s play is special (and different from ‘real life’). I don’t mean in any way to disparage this parallel world. Sometimes the ‘play’ is ‘playful’ like much of Joyce or Dylan Thomas or Shakespeare’s banter or John Donne or various forms of comedy; sometimes not. Occasionally it can pack a huge emotional punch. (Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus hit me very deep and very hard.)

    I like Roman Jakobson’s notion of language’s ‘poetic function’ by the way, and I think it is more or less compatible with my views.

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  30. Dan

    That’s right. But there never was a hard and fast distinction here. Ordinary play is never totally cut off from the real social world; likewise with art and literature. Again, Jakobson’s various linguistic functions represent a simplifying abstraction and it is common for more than one function to be applicable to a particular instance of language use.

    That said, I do think it is important always to bear in mind that there are distinctions to be made (between an objective, historically-grounded claim about a past event and a totally non-historically-grounded claim, for example).

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  31. Dan

    I too am very skeptical about ‘history’. That’s why I talked about ‘historically-grounded claims’. I think the word ‘objective’ can reasonably be used in its ordinary sense in this connection.

    Did Audrey Hepburn really object to eating the Danish? I haven’t checked the documentary sources, but presumably there are some which one might judge to be more or less reliable (in the way that witnesses are judged more or less reliable in courtroom situations).

    Were the twin towers brought down by the airplanes or by strategically-placed explosives? Again, there is evidence which may be objectively assessed. (And nobody’s going to say the towers didn’t collapse on that day. Too many people saw it, and the aftermath.)

    Did those American astronauts really land on the moon or was it all faked?

    I don’t think that it is at all unreasonable to believe that many claims about past events etc. can be objectively assessed in a meaningful sense of that term. Sometimes you can come to a clear conclusion in which you can be very confident. More often (depending on the nature of the claim) there will be a degree of doubt – but I don’t think this invalidates what I said in my last comment.

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  32. Hi Mark, not only do I eat peas with a spoon, sometimes I use my fingers to push peas onto the spoon!

    On the !Kung, if I remember right they tend to eat when they are hungry and not just when it is lunch 🙂

    And Asians use more than forks and knives!

    So perhaps the more important rules, if rules we need, might be found outside that list. But it does get one thinking.

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