the chapter heading above, as well as the title of this
book suggest, I am as drawn to language’s endlessly
playful nature as I am linguistic mistakes or errors
in signification. The wish to regularize grammar and
punctuation, and to install rules about textual structure
and language register, is an attempt to rein in language’s
natural inclination to evade what we want to say. Instead
of constraining language, we are treated to a jeering
from the horizon of what is possible. Each utterance
implicitly contains its converse, as well as a thousand
other possibilities, and that frustrates any who will
force upon language the accuracy of mathematics, and
delights those who revel in alternative meanings, fresh
ideas, and the multitudinous possibilities of lateral
has likely always been a proposition fraught with misunderstandings
and ignorance. Only fistfuls of stone tools remain to
report on our early development, so we can merely guess
how we might have transmitted cultural knowledge. We
must have communicated in some fashion, even if it were
limited to gesture, but other than suggestive clues
such as the existence of trade routes, we cannot confirm
a particular date in our early development when we began
to speak. Somehow, we told others about making rope—if
we rely on the mute implications of a thirty thousand
year old fragment of twisted fibre—and twenty-five thousand years
ago we were apparently explaining how to make pottery. Later generations added more elaborate
innovations to the craft and that likely demanded even
greater linguistic sophistication.
of language diversity have led some to claim that language
use is at least two hundred thousand years old,
and certainly there are ways other than the spoken word
to transmit cultural information.
Early human development might well be crowded with people
who lived their entire lives communicating solely by
gesture and roughly drawn shapes on the cave floor.
Doubtless they were also plagued by the same failures
of communication and difficulty of expression that torment
us now on the other side of the millennia.
writing began, five thousand years ago in Sumer, we
mainly used it to keep records. Once the food in the granaries
was counted, and the king had collected his taxes, the
scribes turned to literary pursuits. They began to transcribe
the stories that we’d been telling each other over cooking
fires for tens of thousands of years, and supplemented
that with their thoughts and guesses about the world
around them. Although they were likely unaware of the
possibility, such transcriptions would forever change
the nature of information delivery.
suggestion that the written utterance was inalterable
inevitably held it to a higher standard than the spoken
text. If a detail in a campfire story went astray, then
good natured ridicule might be the worst one might expect, but accuracy of transcription
when counting crops became crucial in the written text.
This predilection continued into the writing of stories.
The Christian bible tells us that “In the beginning
was the word,” and although the bible is problematized
by translation and editing, many Christians today still
remain committed to the exact text of their particular
translation and transliteration. As stories were laboriously
transcribed by monks working by candlelight, the accuracy
of their copy became an important way to discern the
notions persist. Shakespearean scholars torment themselves
and others over which version is authoritative
and when his plays are performed directors are typically
so precious about the exact wording that they rarely
make changes to the lines. Not surprisingly, some of the
first books to be printed in the post-Gutenberg era
were grammar guides. They were meant to regularize the
riot of spellings and structures that had always been
in the language but which became more vexing as they
crept into the written text.
valiant attempts, however well-intentioned, are ultimately
doomed. Even ignoring the very real human tendency to
be sloppy, language’s natural slipperiness combines
with the fact that knowledge of grammatical rules is
increasingly scarce on the ground. As well, the delight
that many take in affronting others with the written
word, and artistic manipulation of grammar and diction,
labours alongside those for whom clarity of expression
is merely arcane rules enforced by nerds who cannot
get on with the business of living and expressing.
Waits tells us that “Words are like music. Before you
understand what they are they already have some value
and I would argue that their value only increases the
more we try to grapple with them.
example, on a class paper my student claimed that “Poverty
is defined as the state of being extremely poor.” With
many online dictionaries engaging in exactly this type
of tautology in their definitions, I wasn’t sure how
to explain to them that their sentence delivered no
more information than the word poor could accomplish
on its own. In any event, that is not strictly true.
Their sentence becomes much more engaging if we look
beyond their intent.
vague entity is doing the defining, we are told. Behind
the subject—the poverty which is being defined—hovers
another subject. That person doing the defining is nearly
invisible in the sentence, even though the sentence
gives them complete control over how poverty is constructed.
As well, my student’s use of an intensifier suggests
that being normally poor is not sufficient if one wants
to be defined as living in a state of poverty. They
need to be “extremely poor” in order to fit the definition.
Because it is merely a state of being, as the sentence
optimistically suggests, it need not last. The state
of being extremely poor could easily shift, the sentence
implies, and then the one who has been identified as
poor might escape the grasp of such an authoritative
sounding vague definition.
this study, I am interested in pursuing such possibilities
in language use. Although grammar, diction, and syntax
are necessary fellow travellers on the way through this
study, the main journey is about the tendency of language
to wriggle from our grip. With the internet exacerbating
language’s natural inclination to chaos, the field has
become even more rewarding. A single evocative statement
can have enough online resonance to ring across the
globe as it is endlessly repeated and commented upon.
George W. Bush said, “Rarely is the question asked:
Is our children learning?”
he likely never thought he’d end up an internet meme
or a warning to students to heed subject verb agreement.
Likewise, scurrilous YouTube and Facebook conflicts
expose the ignorance and willful lack of interest in
the language of those being confronted. With sentences
as slippery as an eel on a mud flat, the online community
deforms the meaning of words with the blunt hammer of
ignorance, scatters punctuation like grass seed, and
then defends their mercurial creation even while it
squirms into a crippled coherence.
when people online are accused of errors which complicate
their message, their emotional response demands that
they reply with misdirected prose and confusing vitriol:
English would win over a word contest w you on Any given
day. Your assuming I’m illiterate n stupid You
are what you say I am. My spell check n qwerty are in
need of repair .much the way your brain is. Your rude
your not adhering to the guidelines instructed. Doing
edso to me evidence you would create drama in this family.
writer above suggests that they are the equal of their
online combatant, that their computer is faulty, and
that those they address do not follow the grammatical
and social rules of human interaction. Perhaps because
we have long dealt with similar utterances, we are good
at parsing such sentences. We read them in a doubled
fashion. We interpret both what is said—in all of its
incoherent rawness—and what we presume was meant.
doubled reading allows us to mix their intentions with
their inadvertent resultant meanings until we have a
stew of possibilities which is not suggested by either
their reactive nature or lack of control over language.
The irony of their claim is lost on few, but the idea
that levels of illiteracy are decided by a “word contest,”
that personal attacks amount to a proof of competence,
and that some higher digital authority is in control
of silly online banter, expose more about the writer
than they might wish. Finally, the peculiar intimacy
with which they address the offending party—inviting
them into a family relationship—dislocates and personalizes
the narrative even as their argument culminates with
a moral condemnation.
this word salad were more coherent, it would waste several
paragraphs delivering as much information and as many
suggestive statements. The reader has a sense of the
writer’s personality, ability, and educational background,
even as he or she is flexing and stretching the words
that have erupted onto the page.
example which should be even more difficult to parse
is a high school student interacting with their friends.
They likely did not realize that by virtue of posting
their statements that they had reached a wider audience,
but I was struck by the clarity of their sentences despite
the irregularity of their prose. They chose to manipulate
some of the spelling and diction in accordance to what
was fashionable at the time, and their grammar is a
result of impatience and inability, but their pastiche
of incoherence is still an understandable cultural snapshot
from a particular time in the teenage world. Despite
rebelliously flouting their teacher’s traditions, their
message still hovers behind the words. Even in the face
of a wish to obfuscate and posture, the reader’s ability
to interpret meaning is resilient:
i hav NO idea hoo took this pic on my camera.. it waz either taken
by.. matt. or nick.. cuz gabrielz shoez R next 2 my
head.. but that waz tha day i hella passed out N bardsley
let me sleep tha hole period under a tree hahaha!!
therez not much i kan put up here cuz.. itz jus gay 2 say wussup in
public.. but hope everything werx out 4 tha better..
u better visit u punk!! mary N sarin.. no werdz kan
xplain how grateful I am 2 bump in2 u guyz @ skool outta
nowhere.. i love tha way we’ve never got in ONE fite
this hole entire year.. we laff about everything N tern
everything in2 a joke.. u guyz showed me that tha werdz
"true" and "frenz" kan belong in
1 sentence.. i no i’ll c u over the summer eventually..
N next year.. but i jus wanted 2 let u 2 no i love u
so much N no matter wut happenz we’ll alwayz b pinky..
mousy.. & "O" neardz fo life 4 all u ppl
hoo hav fan signz.. none of those post-it-notez kan
ever kompare 2 this sign
inadvertently, this teen is doing much more than communicating
with their friends. Many of the words are spelled phonetically,
their sentences are the barest of meaning-making units,
and a contemporaneous text-speech has contaminated much
of their diction. Their prose does more than evoke a
particular time and place, however, it also shows how
well written English retains its form and meaning regardless
of deliberate and ostentatious flexing.
course this type of playfulness is not always deliberate,
and not always limited to untutored mistakes. In a page
encouraging tourists to visit an island near Vancouver,
the reader is told that “Hornby Island is home to a
tightly knit community of about nine hundred residents
and a well kept secret to thousands of visitors.”
The secret becomes much less well kept when the sentence
brags that thousands of people have visited, but there
is no sense that the writer was either being deliberately
grammatically combative—like the high school student
above—witty in a self-depreciating fashion, or grammatically-challenged—such
as the person who commented on the Facebook page. Instead,
the otherwise coherent nature of the Hornby Island sentence
draws attention to how it undermines its own meaning.
so no one will think these more comical errors are associated
with a lack of education, when I was visiting my friend
in Halifax, a colleague sent me a long rambling commentary
on one of my courses. My friend laughed when I read
the email and I warned him that my colleague was capable
of more extreme feats of incoherence. To satisfy his
curiosity, I asked my colleague to be more explicit.
I knew once they were faced with the task of defining
their thought, they would mash their answer together
in a fashion that would delight my friend. My colleague
has a PhD, but the sentences which represent their attempt
to articulate their thoughts give no indication that
the degree had honed their ability to communicate:
not sure I can be more explicit. My
first concern is
that a professor in an English
department should be representing himself or herself
as an expert in decoding texts, not in social issues,
albeit in your course you will be focusing on texts
about social issues. My
I would understand any University course to allow for
the possibility of students taking very different positions
or holding very different opinions about a range of
issues, so that it should be made
clear that, while you focus on texts that have
been identified as articulating a wish for social change,
students might, for example, not see the texts as doing
this effectively, or might see them as not attempting
such an expression at all and rather concerned with
something very different, or they might argue that
the wish being expressed not being a worthwhile wish,
import of their argument is clear enough. They suggest
that an English course should not focus on social issues.
That is a view commonly held by older professors who
were trained in the New Critic way of divorcing texts
from their social surround. The second part of the paragraph
is a very long sentence which ends rather abruptly.
In that, they suggest that students might view texts
differently, and they rather inadvertently point to
the field of English study as occupied with how effectively
texts articulate their argument—which is the purpose
of such cultural studies approaches—but the entire sentence
soon falls over the cliff of etcetera that it is rapidly
clause after clause, they have lost track of their sentence’s
original purpose. Their rambling incoherence, once carefully
parsed, blandly suggests that students interpret texts
differently. Somehow that is meant to be a caution,
although the trite nature of such advice undermines
the writer’s attempt to grandstand, and the incoherence
of the sentence, given that it is advice about clarity
in the interpretation of texts, becomes laughable.
cite these examples to show the endless variety of mistakes
and missteps, and also to give an idea of the types
of work I analyze in this study. PhD or high school
dropout, conspiracy theorist or student writing a paper,
no one is immune to the word’s allergic response to
definitive meaning. I think that a more involved way
of thinking about the slipperiness of signification
is much more useful than showboating incoherence and
inability as mere mistakes.
are not exactly errors; they are a chance to stretch
the possibilities of what the written word can accomplish.
When my friend Johann wanted to express the repulsiveness
of the cockroach which ran over his face while he was
sleeping, he said, “it was heavy, like a dog.” Wishing
to convey the repellent sensation and limited by his
understanding of English, he leapt for an expression
that represented his revulsion much better than if he
described it more accurately.
high school student above who stretched the language
of their missive both conveyed their coolness, delivered
a message to their peers, and evoked a particular time.
My colleague with the PhD, perhaps inadvertently, exposed
their mental state in their tangle of phrasing and incoherence,
and Johann cobbled together his few nouns and verbs
into an evocative description.
is a difficult craft, but in this book I am more interested
in exploring the missteps and potential interpretations
of the found text as it chivies the words to explore
their different meanings. Even with the best of intentions,
and the utmost care devoted to the task, words diverge
in meaning in other cultural backgrounds and sentences
escape from our attempt to corral them into coherence
and capture them as meaning-making units. Even when
the intentions and skill level are suspect and lacking,
the result can be a kind of comedy of errors as well
as a linguistic plenitude,
a delightful jouissance