February 25, 2014, by michaelgroves
Pushing the envelope
In Michael Rosen‘s recent book, he talks about how he was taught to address envelopes when he was a schoolboy in the 50s and 60s. He describes in great deal the care that had to be taken with the placement of commas, the alignment of the text, and the fact that it was obligatory to end a man’s (not a woman’s though) name with Esq.- as a sign of respect. This, he says, was the subject of some importance in his school days.
Today, it is little more than a memory for people old enough to remember, a curiosity for those who are not. It is very rare to see Esq at all, and commas rarely used, if at all. Of course- we send fewer letters than before, but when we do, all those rules that Rosen had to learn as fact when he was a child have simply ceased to exist in normal practise.
What of other rules? Are the rules that are taught in the EAP classrooms of today set to go the same way? Is it possible that the rules of grammar that we teach as “correct” today, will go the way of esquire, and be no more than a historical curiosity in the future? For example- if the time of a verb can be signalled lexically, or by implication, why do need bother ourselves with it? In the sentence “Survey take place on 1st March 2011”, the time is clear, the meaning is communicated whether or not past form of the verb is used. Are we moving toward a world of “linguistic minimalism”- where, as long as meaning is clear, grammatical conventions do not matter?
There are two things going on here, and the envelope analogy works well. Firstly- there are certain things that need to be included in the envelope- otherwise it won’t get to where it’s going, or at least it will take longer. If you fail to include the town, your letter will get lost. If you fail to include certain information in a sentence, the meaning will get lost.
However, failing to include “esq” does not mean that the letter cannot get to its destination. But- if the letter is address without “esq” and the recipient is expecting “esq”, he will likely think less of the sender. The communication is not following the social conventions needed- and therefore the communications fails to some extent- not on a meaning level- on a social level.
Of course, it is easy to make the argument that “esq” is a relic of a long gone time- its roots go back to the age of chivalry in Europe, and it represents a set of social and ideological assumptions that belong in the age of chivalry, not the age of information. The same argument could be made about “standard” grammar- England is no longer the centre of the English speaking world- and so the norms of British English should no longer apply outside Britain. The same will soon be true of the USA.
However, this would be to miss a key point. Currently, writers of academic English generally try to fit their writing to the academic norms, and this includes the linguistic norms. As I mentioned in a previous post, using a certain form of grammar is about fitting in the discourse community. But, given the ever changing nature of language , it seems very clear that the norms of today will not be the norms of tomorrow. In other words, the discourse of the discourse community will inevitably change. Will structures like the passive, irregular past tenses and question forms last into the future- or will they become badges of linguistic conservatism, then traditionalism, and finally archaism?