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The Pleasure of Language -- Essential Listening for Hyper-corrective Grammarians

Jan 2, 2009 • creativity, general

Stephen Fry on Language
Stephen Fry on the pleasure of language

This podcast from Stephen Fry on language is one of the most entertaining, thought-provoking, well-read essays on language I've ever heard. In the podcast, Fry says he often encounters people who consider themselves high-minded grammarians, who assume he is on their side when they express their disgust of common grammar errors, such as "12 Items or Less" signs in grocery stories (rather than "fewer"), or misuses of "disinterested," or conversions of nouns into unconventional verbs (such as "actioned").

Rather than become cramped by rules and purist ideas of correctness, Fry argues that language should be a source of pleasure. Language is an innate right (even a biological inheritance) that everyone is entitled to. People should be free to bend and modify it as they please. It is a flexible and elastic source of pleasure, not merely a vehicle for communication. Like wine and cheese, which are more than just means of sustenance but rather sources of delight, Fry says language can also be used for delight.

A few months ago I attended a creative/professional writing conference in Idaho in which the keynote speaker spent thirty minutes explaining that, when you become a writer, you begin to notice grammar mistakes everywhere. She had an extensive number of clippings from newspapers detailing myriad usage errors. Although her talk was funny and light-hearted, it revealed a tragic mindset. Writing (at least the more creative kind) isn't about learning correct grammar. It's about learning to find pleasure in language, especially when you steer it outside convention.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.