Friday, March 03, 2017

"It doesn't matter as long as people can understand you"

There are people who say that it shouldn't matter whether something is written properly as long as the audience understands it.

I've heard this said about things that aren't "correct" English per the prescriptivist definition (like "ain't"), and about spelling and grammar errors, as well as things like slang and txtspeak, which aren't the focus of today's post.

I have also found myself in situations where these things make it difficult for me to understand the text. For example, if the "incorrect" English or spelling or grammar error shifts meaning, I interpret the text literally, not realizing that the person meant something else.

And sometimes in these situations where I'm having trouble understanding because I interpreted an erroneous text literally, I'm accused of being pedantic, as though I'm not understanding on purpose as a judgement of their poor writing skills, with tone and delivery hinting that I should stop being difficult and just get along and understand it like a regular person.

This makes me wonder: do people whose English skills lead to spelling/grammar/usage errors that shift meaning find it easier to understand other people with similar English skills?  Do they not see the shift in meaning, or somehow instantly see what was intended?

(In this post so far, I'm talking about people whose first language is English, although it could certainly also happen with people whose first language is not English.)

One thing I've learned in my translation career is that Anglophones and Francophones make different kinds of mistakes in French.  An Anglophone who learned French in school wouldn't confuse manger (to eat) and mangé (eaten), or ses (his/her where the noun is plural) and ces (these) on the grounds that they're completely different parts of speech, but these are among the most common mistakes Francophones make on the grounds that they're homophones.  (I was so proud of myself the day I almost sent out an email in French with an infinitive where a past participle should have been! Finally thinking in French!) 

Meanwhile, a Francophone would never say il faut que je vais (indicative , where the subjunctive il faut que j'aille is correct), but this is one of the most common mistakes Anglophones make because subjunctive isn't as intuitive for us.

A French text written by an Anglophone with poor French skills is very easy for me to understand. A French text written by a Francophone with poor French skills is perilously close to impenetrable for me.

I wonder if the same phenomenon occurs with texts written by people with similar skill levels in English, even if English is their first language. Do people who are prone to make errors in English understand error-prone English better than people who have a better handle on spelling and grammar?  If so, I wonder if they can understand error-prone English better than error-free English?

(Aside: I'm quite sure the gods of irony will have inserted a few errors of the sort that I don't usually make into this blog post.)


laura k said...

This makes me wonder: do people whose English skills lead to spelling/grammar/usage errors that shift meaning find it easier to understand other people with similar English skills? Do they not see the shift in meaning, or somehow instantly see what was intended?

In my experience, people whose English speaking/writing skills shift meaning don't read closely enough or well enough to understand the difference. I find that the language precision is wasted -- and that's why it seems pedantic to them.

Lorraine said...

I'm anything but typical (actually, I'm autistic AF). For me, "as long as people can understand you" isn't a binary "they do or they don't" unless I add the word "explicitly." Which I do by default. So with me it probably really is me being pedantic. /s

I think people whose native language is non-standard English (whose parents' usage is "ungrammatical"), including the white ones, are necessarily capable of code switching. But I wouldn't know. While my mom doesn't quite speak the King's English, she's closer than average and as a result I'm code switching impaired. The upside is bigger than the downside, though. I have no doubt that the reason I scored in the 99th percentile in the English portion of the ACT (see, is that a thing in Canada?) is because that subtest (at that time, anyway) was basically a proofreading test of the "which of A, B, C, D is grammatically correct" type. For me it was as simple as which one didn't intuitively "feel wrong." I guarantee it had nothing to do with my secondary English curriculum. I'm quite sure I would have aced that test at age 8 or something. In other words, the ACT (at least when I took it in 1983) is biased as hell.

My only frequent exposure to French language content is the entity that now calls itself the mouthful "Ici Radio Canada Première." Lately I often feel as if the dreaded "oral comprehension" just happens, and with increasing frequency. I'm trying to figure out whether that means that the many hours of listening have addeded up to vocabulary growth, sense of idiom, or maybe development of some intuitive faculty that was previously dormant, or perhaps "IRCP" is not simply the old "SRC" by another name, but (as I strongly suspect) has been dumbed down into some French version of "Schau ins Land." Certainly the % of airtime in which some obvious native Anglophone is talking is WAY higher then when I first "discovered" SRC in the late 1970's. Although I had near-zero oral comprehension back then, somehow I don't think the word "francophile" appeared on their airwaves nearly as much back then. I'm not even sure it was a word back then. I get the strong impression that SRC, IRCP, whatevs, at some point (fairly recently) made an editorial decision that this "francophile" audience (possibly including south of the border, or north of the border here in Detroit) is an audience they want to reach. Since you're about as expert as they get, both on English-French language issues, and on cultural trends among the wacky Canadians (as Alex Trebeck would say), I'd be delighted if you had any hot take on this.

impudent strumpet said...

You know, I never actually thought of it as code-switching, in that I didn't think of as a "code" that's consistent from person to person. But if the departures from "correct" are consistent, that would explain why people are frustrated when I don't understand.

Possible example: I might say that my external hard drive has 2 TB of memory. It doesn't - it has 2 TB of disk space. But if I'm going to use the incorrect term, it's going to be "memory", not, like "processing power" or "resolution" or "bandwidth".

impudent strumpet said...

Unfortunately, I've fallen out of the habit of routinely keeping Radio-Canada on in the background, so I haven't heard the exact phenomenon you're talking about.

I do know that some Francophone dialects sound far more Anglophone than what we usually hear (for example, some Northern Ontario French dialects). I can't tell through the internet whether you've taken that into account in your assessment of "obvious native Anglophone." Some types of French education/training for Anglophones don't focus terribly heavily on accent acquisition, for reasons I can elaborate on at tedious length if anyone is interested, so fully bilingual Anglophones may well still sound like Anglophones.

I also know that Francophone cultural events/projects/etc. (e.g. Rendez-vous de la Francophonie) do explicitly include Francophiles in the target audience. I first started hearing the word Francophiles when I began training as a translator (2000ish) and its presence has been consistent in my sphere of awareness. (My sphere of awareness being completely atypical and not representative of any normal pattern of media consumption.)

Lorraine said...

This thing you call northern Ontario French dialects, is that what they call "Outaouais?" For some reason I thought that was just a word that means "metropolitan Ottawa" or something.

Let's assume that there's a French dialect in which "oi", instead of transliterating to "wa" as in "watt", maps to something like "wa" as in "wanker." Is that Outaouais? Is that northern Ontario? Or is that something else?

impudent strumpet said...

Outaouais is a region of Quebec adjacent to the Ottawa River (which is called la Rivière des Outaouais in French). It includes Gatineau (formerly known as Hull, for those with non-recent familiarity with the area), which is the Quebec part of the National Capital Region. So functionally it does include the Quebec part of metropolitan Ottawa, but that isn't what the word actually means.

The internet suggests that the words Ottawa and Outaouais were both separately derived from an Algonquin word meaning "traders". Possibly that's what the local indigenous people called the river?

Northern Ontario is generally north of Lake Huron or Lake Superior. (The southernmost part of Northern Ontario for our purposes here is around Sudbury and North Bay, although people from Toronto refer to Lake Simcoe and above as "up north".)

The Franco-Ontarians I know personally whose French sounds surprisingly Anglo to my ear come from various extremely tiny communities in various parts of the massive expanse that is Northern Ontario. I also know people from Northern Ontario who don't speak French that way, but I've never had a chance to find out why there's a difference.

Outaouais doesn't appear to be too far from Northern Ontario on the map - especially when you consider the location of Highway 11 (which is the route a lot of people would take when settling in new places), but I have no idea whether the accents are similar. I don't knowingly know anyone from rural Outaouais. (But I'd be surprised if I didn't unknowingly know someone from Outaouais.)