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The Anarchy of Language (2015)


No apostrophes? Misplaced commas? Starting a sentence with a conjunction? Whatever shall we do?! Join James in today's Thought for the Day as he ponders the miracle of communication, explores the anarchy of language, and celebrates the beauty of spontaneous order.


Grammar Nazis. We all know them. Those people who fly into apoplectic fits of rage at a misplaced comma. People who can't countenance a misspelled word. People who will dismiss entire arguments because of a greengrocer's apostrophe.

Well, here's a little tidbit to send any would-be grammar Nazi in your life into a fit of rage.

Did you know that for over a century there has been a small but notable group of writers, including G. B. Shaw and others, who have argued that there should not be apostrophes in the English language any more.

It's an archaism. It is something that the language does not need in order to actually get our point across.

And there's an interesting little article on this that I'll put it in the show notes so you can check it out . . . about this history of the war on the apostrophe that makes its point by not using a single apostrophe in the entire article.

But the entire article is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who can read English. Because we really don't need the apostrophe for the purpose of communication.

And I think that's what rankles about these grammar Nazis.

It's that they want us to believe that there's some sort of system of rules and laws that must be adhered to rigidly in order for language to effectively communicate, when that is evidently not the case.

And yes, certainly there are occasions and contexts in which we must adhere to whatever style guide is being used by whatever organization we're writing for.

If you're writing a business proposal for some important client, if you're writing a term paper for college, of course, yes, you have to follow the norms and strictures of grammar as we have been taught.

But even that is a bit of an open question, because there are different style guides in different countries, different spelling variants and grammatical structures that are used in different countries. The Oxford comma, for example, not being particularly common in the United States.


So even what form of English do you want to adhere to is a question in and of itself.

But more importantly, I think it misses the point. Because the real point of communication is communicationóthe miracle of communication.

And it may be a miracle that is so mundane and everyday that we don't really even contemplate it anymore.

But it is a miracle that I can take these thoughts and ideas and half-formed, ambiguous, vague concepts, put them into words, force them out my mouth hole and into your ear, and you will get at least an understanding of what I'm talking [[[about?]]].

That is a miracle. And that is the beauty of language.

And I posit to you that that is the beauty of the anarchy of language.

Yes, I may not speak at all times and in all contexts in a perfectly grammatically correct way. But if I get the point across, then isn't that enough?

And I would argue that, yes, that is in fact not only the potential of this miracle of communication, but also that's the delight, the play of language.

That's where poetry comes from. That's where we can really play with the concept of how we communicate things.

And we don't always have to rigidly adhere to those grade school verities that you must not begin a sentence with a conjunction or things of that sort, as long as we get the idea, the feeling, the impression across.

That's, I think, really what we should be aiming at.

And I think the more perceptive people in the crowd will understand what I'm driving at here and the fact that language itself is a beautiful, spontaneous order that does not require policemen or grammar Nazis in order to tell us what to say and how to say it.

It's really a negotiation that happens between people each and every day—spontaneously. The spontaneous order that arises when crowds simply have to negotiate and get their point across to other people.

It will happen. And it may not happen in some way that's been prescribed in some rule book somewhere, but it will happen.

And that, I think, is very beautiful. And perhaps that's a point that we can apply more broadly in more political senses.

And for more on that, I will invite you to check out my previous International Forecaster editorial on the concept of spontaneous order and the ramifications it has not only for our politics, but our society and our culture at large.

But that's a very heady, philosophical concept to think about.

So I'll leave that to stew for a little while.

Once again, this is James Corbett of here in the beautiful, sunny climes of western Japan.

Looking forward to talking to you again very soon.

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