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The Vocabula Review


Francis Blessington

Frank Blessington

Language is a system of thought that we impose on the chaos of experience in order to screen ourselves from the incomprehensible, the inarticulate, the indifferent, and the hostile. It is supposed to "make sense," that is, be consistent with itself, like a dictionary, and be consistent with the outside world, whatever that may actually be. Language is the material we use to construct our model of reality, which enables us, in turn, to construct memory, experience, behavior, morality, identity, and consciousness.

Robert McHenry

Robert McHenry

I've been looking at a lot of online pornography. By "a lot," I mean sometimes as many as a thousand porn sites in a day.

("Dear Mr. Fiske: Please cancel my subscription forthwith.")

Allow me to explain. I work for a company that produces Internet filtering software (that's software that prevents children or employees from viewing inappropriate material on the World Wide Web), and my job involves, among other things, checking on the accuracy of our classification methods for websites. Recently this has required me to look at this particular category of online "content," as we in the tech biz refer to words and pictures. It is, as you may suppose, obscene, repetitive, unimaginative, tawdry, sad, and occasionally disgusting; and, as you might not guess, after a surprisingly short time it is also utterly unstimulating.

Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Frank E. Keyes, Jr.

Some believe that language has no usage rules. The "some" are descriptivists, and their opposite, prescripivists. Each group is not as right and the other not as wrong as each believes, often with passion. Follett describes these two as follows:

PRESCRIBE: The larger [party], which includes everybody from the proverbial plain man to the professional writer, takes it for granted that there is a right way to use words and construct sentences, and many wrong ways. The right way is believed to be clearer, simpler, more logical, and hence more likely to prevent error and confusion. Good writing is easier to read; it offers a pleasant combination of sound and sense.

DESCRIBE: Against this majority view is the doctrine of an embattled minority, who make up for their small number by their great learning and their place of authority in the school system and the world of scholarship. They are the professional linguists, who deny that there is such a thing as correctness. The language, they say, is what anybody and everybody speaks.

The July issue of The Vocabula Review is due online July 20.


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