Saturday, 13 April 2013

Live by the sword...

Ranting about the lack of precision in language is one thing and quite a popular thing too, but being able to weed out all the imprecision in your own speech is another. I love "the skeptics guide to the universe" and James Randi, with his million dollar prize. I'm trying to listen to their entire back catalogue of podcasts (over 8 years worth) and enjoying it greatly.

The only thing that bothers me is that at times they can be quite prescriptive about language use. This doesn't seem fitting for sceptics, -but at the same time, its hardly surprising for me to see scientists muscle in on linguists' territory.

Anyway, episode 181 features a section with James Randi complaining about imprecision in language use; redundant' phrases like "unfortunate tragedy", "rich millionaires" and a "deadly fatality". Fine, go ahead and complain about this stuff, but if you are going to complain Randi, then in the very next breath, don't say something like this:

[interviewees] begin every single response with the phrase "well..."


Hold on, every single? As a oppose to what? Surely if you want to remove redundancy this should be "every response". Randi has shown here that it's a lot easier to pick at things you don't like than to actually remove all of the supposed imperfections from your speech. If you're going to criticize language use you'd better make sure yours is perfect. Five seconds before he makes this 'blunder' Randi says:
I understand that this is only an expression but it's a careless one.
And here's another expression "live by the sword, die by the sword."

4 comments:

  1. There are a number of language mavens where I work. Baiting them is one of my vices. There are few greater pleasures to be had in my staff room, at least, than catching them in one of their many contradictions.

    Sad to hear that James "The Amazing" Randi would be on their side, though.

    The Bryson Stance ("Yeah, I know language changes, but [insert inconsistent whinge about why some 1930s usage is less illogical than a modern usage]") is a kind of default intellectual position for the non-linguist (or anyone who's never read Steven Pinker), presumably because it displays both liberal acquiescence to the notion of change, while still asserting intellectual superiority (I know the TRUTH about 'whom'!).

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  2. Thanks for the reply Paul. You're right it is a shame, quite disappointing actually, but sadly not surprising. Perhaps a part of scepticism is the warm glow of feeling "right" about something, so they tend to go for prescriptivism?

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  3. "Ranting about the lack of precision in language is one thing and quite a popular thing too, but being able to weed out all the imprecision in your own speech is another."

    Some, incapable of purging, protest language imprecision.

    "I love "the skeptics guide to the universe" and James Randi, with his million dollar prize. I'm trying to listen to their entire back catalogue of podcasts (over 8 years worth) and enjoying it greatly."

    I dedicate time to James Randi's propaganda.

    "The only thing that bothers me is that at times they can be quite prescriptive about language use. This doesn't seem fitting for sceptics, -but at the same time, its hardly surprising for me to see scientists muscle in on linguists' territory."

    His (prescriptive)[descriptive] linguistics are erroneous, e.g.:

    "Anyway, episode 181 features a section with James Randi complaining about imprecision in language use; redundant' phrases like "unfortunate tragedy", "rich millionaires" and a "deadly fatality". Fine, go ahead and complain about this stuff, but if you are going to complain Randi, then in the very next breath, don't say something like this:

    [interviewees] begin every single response with the phrase "well..."

    Hold on, every single? As a oppose to what? Surely if you want to remove redundancy this should be "every response". Randi has shown here that it's a lot easier to pick at things you don't like than to actually remove all of the supposed imperfections from your speech. If you're going to criticize language use you'd better make sure yours is perfect. Five seconds before he makes this 'blunder' Randi says:
    I understand that this is only an expression but it's a careless one.
    And here's another expression "live by the sword, die by the sword.""

    "Every single." "All" suffices.

    New methods change communication. Simplicity increases efficacy and requires understanding.

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    Replies
    1. I'm having a hard time understanding what it is you are trying to say.

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