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"These choices are unavoidably ideological"
February 18, 2014 11:49 AM   Subscribe

"Finlayson’s attitude to language can be related to his politics. As an admirer and advocate of free market capitalism, he considers human society nothing more than the sum total of the actions of an aggregate of free and rational individuals. Just as these free and rational individuals are wholly responsible for their beliefs and choices, so they are entirely responsible for the meanings of the language they use. If there is any ambiguity in a piece of language, then this is the result of some individual’s failure to stop splitting infinitives, or breaking some other rule. " -- At Reading the Maps, Scott Hamilton rejects New Zealand's Attorney General and Minister of Treaty Negotiations Chris Finlayson's reductionist calls for "clear" language, in favour of the more complex approach to English as articulated by H. W. Fowler.
posted by MartinWisse (16 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finlayson outlaws the serial comma. He is wrong. That is all. Q.E.D.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:02 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


I'm trying to find a link in that article to what Finlayson's actual directives were, and either I'm blind or it has been omitted. So I can only take the following passage at face value;

It is interesting to consider the history and meanings of one of the words that Chris Finlayson has forbidden his employees from using. ‘Community’

Aah here we get to the meat of it. Reactionary Tory doesn't like anyone to even mention that human beings tend to gather together based on common interests.
posted by Jimbob at 12:07 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


... some individual’s failure to stop splitting infinitives ...

I think he meant "... some individual’s failure to boldy stop splitting infinitives ..."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:08 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


So Hamilton is saying the writing of "speeches, press releases, and letters to constituents" should more resemble the famously difficult poetry of Geoffrey Hill? For all his patronizing certainties, Hamilton seems really unfamiliar with the notion of diction.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:23 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Writers should learn to not split infinitives.
posted by spaltavian at 12:24 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


You have to love a country where (or perhaps just a writer to whom) it seems reasonable to critique a politician with an excursus on Geoffrey Hill.
posted by RogerB at 12:24 PM on February 18


So Hamilton is saying the writing of "speeches, press releases, and letters to constituents" should more resemble the famously difficult poetry of Geoffrey Hill?

I don't know. Is he? But you've got to admit that things would be more entertaining if they did.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:31 PM on February 18


My opinion on the "controversy" of split infinitives is a resounding meh. It's English; the infinitives come pre-split: To go rather than, e.g., aller. I see no reason to not fully take advantage of that quirk in our language.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:01 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I'm of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm a prescriptivist descriptivist in that the answer to any question about grammar or style is READ THE FUCKING STYLE GUIDE. Everyone's office should have standards, at the very least so that readers don't have to code-switch between AP Style and APA Style from paragraph to paragraph. As long as everyone recognizes that the style of the office stays at the office, I don't see a problem.

Microsoft is a bigger elephant on that front.

On the other hand, you can critique the politics of a style guide. That critique is also politics. Language is likely politics all the way down (and around).
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:18 PM on February 18


You have to love a country where (or perhaps just a writer to whom) it seems reasonable to critique a politician with an excursus on Geoffrey Hill.

I'd probably feel things were going fairly well if I lived in an area where the use or abolishment of the serial comma was considered a significant political issue.

I'd be pro-serial-comma, of course. Anything else is savagery.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:32 PM on February 18


It's English; the infinitives come pre-split: To go rather than, e.g., aller. I see no reason to not fully take advantage of that quirk in our language.

Bascially a bunch of 19th century grammarians decided English should be like Latin for some reason.
posted by spaltavian at 1:50 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


The guy is a lawyer, working with laws.

I work with lawyers. They are very choosy about their words.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:54 PM on February 18


I work with lawyers. They are very choosy about their words.

I agree with this in this particular context. While I do appreciate efforts to make the language of legislation and contracts more accessible, when it comes to politics my cynicism won't let me shake the feeling that any ambiguity created by accessible "clear" language is for a purpose, and that purpose is probably not to benefit the layperson.
posted by Hoopo at 2:10 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I found the blog post linked-to here to be sort of ranty and not particularly informative (which I suppose is the prerogative of the writer), but as " Minister of Treaty Negotiations" presumably Finlayson has to tread carefully in terms of what is said in an official context.

In British Columbia, where I have worked in government, protocol - and the language connected with protocol - is quite important in government speeches. Notably, all government speeches at a provincial and municipal level begin with an acknowledgement of "traditional territories" of the the local First Nation.

So that recognition of First Nations, and the language used to communicate recognition, is very important, and, to some extent, codified.

On top of that, British Columbia has not signed (many) treaties, so there are land claims. This makes language, especially when used by ministers of the Crown, very important.

As "Minister of Treaty Negotiations" I would expect Finlayson to make damn sure that he and his staff are not communicating the wrong thing.

On top of that, yeah, it's likely he is a megalomaniac.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:45 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


That critique is also politics. Language is likely politics all the way down (and around).

Ugh.

Writing should be as simple as possible, as complex as necessary.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:04 PM on February 18


KokuRyu: "I found the blog post linked-to here to be sort of ranty and not particularly informative (which I suppose is the prerogative of the writer), but as " Minister of Treaty Negotiations" presumably Finlayson has to tread carefully in terms of what is said in an official context."

Thanks, KokuRyu, you've basically said what I wanted to say. It's a confused little rant with no sourcing and given the amount of firsthand experience and interaction the author has with various Polynesian cultures (based on a skim of other articles on his blog), it's curious that he's overlooked a few things here.

The blog author says that this directive has come down from the "Minister of Treaty Negotiations", when in fact that's not quite right. Importantly, Finlayson is the Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotations. In that respect, I can begin to understand why there'd be rules about the communications coming from his office, given the certain translation of those communications into Māori, and the slew of legal cases (past and present) resulting from translation issues regarding the treaty.

I'm not trying to deny that this politician may be a neoliberal tool, but maybe there's more at stake and going on here than the blog indicates. For instance, the blog author spends a lot of time talking about the English word "community", its etymology and various things it means in politics now. But where's the similar treatment of the word when translated into Māori?

I'm no Māori speaker (but thank goodness for all the similarities between Polynesian languages!), but other NZ government sites translate "community" as hapori. I'm not near my bookshelf's dictionary to verify that, but a nice online one translates it into English as "section of a kinship group, family, society, community". The emphasis there is mine, because I want to contrast this directly with the blog author's final statement about the English word "community":
Whether we understand community in terms of class, culture, geography or some other factor will depend upon the context in which we are encountering or deploying the word, and the way in which we see the world. The meaning of a word like ‘community’ can never be, and should never be, entirely clear.
"Class" / "Culture" / "Geography" / "Other", and yet nothing about "kinship", "family" or even familial relationships, and at least based on what I know of other Polynesian cultures I would suggest that those may in fact be among the most important aspects of the Māori translation.

So while Finlayson's directives all probably come from a place of right-wing nuttery and pedantic schoolboy feelings about 19th century English usage, maybe there's still a bit of usefulness in there. In a multicultural society where legal matters can be decided in two languages, maybe it's not the worst thing to de-nuance and simplify some of the legal language. Yes, sure: community is a perfectly cromulent word in English, but here that's not enough. In a situation like this the cromulence of the word has to be maximised across multiple language axes. And if there's too much baggage in "community", dump it. English has lots more words where that one came from! Yeah!

However, Finlayson's directives regarding the Oxford comma are just fucking stupid.
posted by barnacles at 1:10 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


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