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Ambiguity and fear of ambiguity are common arguments for a variety of grammatical as well as editorial choices. For example, some people insist that since shouldn’t be used like because (as in “since you’re here so early, let’s build the trebuchet we’ve been planning”), because since could also mean “from that time forward”. The fear is that readers or listeners will commit to that latter reading and find it confusing — if not impossible — to switch tracks to the former reading.
Now, in the case of since, it’s actually rare that both meanings are reasonable for long enough to cause confusion; differences in the type of constituent or verb tense following the since tend to quickly disambiguate the sentence. But in other cases, ambiguity can be real and persistent:
(1) Since I was young, I went to church with my Mom [...]
In rare cases, the ambiguity can even be such that a reader can’t confidently determine which is intended, and in even rarer cases, the difference is meaningful. To insure against this confusion, some writers eschew the “because” meaning of since completely.
And that sounds like a good idea, except for one thing: there’s a flip side to the problem. So long as a substantial fraction of the linguistic community continues to permit the ambiguous form, it doesn’t matter whether you personally avoid the ambiguity; the ambiguous situation arises from unambiguous usage as well. In this case, it’s that ambiguity can arise even in the time-based usage of since:
(2) Since I was young, I have understood how right Benito Juárez, the outstanding Mexican patriot, was when he said: “Respecting others’ rights is the way to peace.”
Even if you never use the “because” meaning, your reader (probably) doesn’t know that. When they get to “Since I was young…”, they still might think that you’re using the “because” form. Again, this is probably only a temporary ambiguity. But it’s as much an ambiguous setting as the one that everyone complains about, so to avoid ambiguity, it also needs eschewed.
Here’s another example, from the cover of a book I’m reading:
The book is on Walter O’Malley, a former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the one who moved them to Los Angeles back in the 1950s. The front cover of the book, pictured above, reads “The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles”.
Now, if there were no such thing as the Oxford comma in this world, this subtitle would be unambiguous — baseball’s most controversial owner would clearly be an apposition referring to Walter O’Malley. (This is, by the way, the intended reading.) But because the Oxford comma exists, this could be a list. That’s the case even if neither the writer nor the reader ever uses the Oxford comma. The possibility of the Oxford comma will still color the interpretations.
I see two lessons here for usage in general. The first is that your writing and speaking do not exist in a vacuum. The principles of usage on which you make your usage decisions ought to take account of how other people use the language. It’s nice*, perhaps, if a writer insists that nauseous can only mean “inducing nausea”, but if no one else adheres to this rule, their readers probably won’t be able to recognize or use that principle in interpreting the writing. Common usage has an unavoidable influence on one’s readers and listeners.
The second is that ambiguity is not limited to contested usages. We tend to think of these debates about ambiguity as each influencing a particular choice or construction, but there’s almost always an overlooked construction that’s affected as well. If the fear of ambiguity is sufficient for a writer to avoid the ambiguous choice (e.g., the Oxford comma or because-since), then the fear of ambiguity also ought to cause the writer to avoid the ambiguity inducer (e.g., appositives in lists, time-since).
There are cases where that second avoidance is reasonable — I think I try to avoid appositives in lists, for instance — but in many situations, this would be tantamount to cutting the word out of the language. If both those senses of since are out, when could it be used? In cases like this, we really have to think hard about the intensity and importance of the ambiguity in the usage before deciding whether or not it’s tolerable. A blanket dictum against ambiguity is too broad a brush.
*: I’m, of course, using nice here in a sense somewhere between the rare “precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct” and the obsolete “displaying foolishness or silliness” meanings.
Most people think of formal language as the ideal form, with less formal versions being a devolved, flawed, or generally worsened form of the formal language. It certainly sounds reasonable; formal language certainly feels harder to acquire and use consistently, for one. As a result, it’s a stance that many people (including me, prior to studying linguistics) take without even thinking about it: obviously, formal language is the language, and informal language is its cheap approximation.
In case I haven’t telegraphed it enough yet, I’d like to argue that this is incorrect. Informal language is not what you use when it isn’t worth the effort to use formal language, and informal language is not a strictly less governed system than formal language.
Since that might be butting up against ingrained opinion, let me start off with an analogy to levels of formality in another domain: fashion. Obviously, formal clothing like suits and ties and dresses can make people look really good for a gala event. But if you’re hoping to play a game of backyard football, they’re terrible, because they restrict your movement, and you’ll be unwilling to join into a dogpile because you’ll never get the blood and mud out. Similar problems arise if you’re working in a factory, doing dentistry, painting — the list goes on. Even just the fact that it’s summer now renders almost all of my formal clothing off-limits, lest I develop heatstroke.
Returning to formal language, we see many of the same points. Formal language can sound nicer than informal in some settings — oratory springs to mind. In other cases, whether or not it sounds nicer, it’s more appropriate. One wouldn’t, for instance, write an academic paper in informal English and expect it to be accepted. (Much as one wouldn’t wear a well-worn T-shirt to a job interview.) And because it tends to be the intelligent or successful who are most often in these “formal language required” settings, it’s unsurprising that formal language is believed to be the better form.
But informal language has its advantages. I’m hesitant to use singular they in formal writing, which at times forces me to concoct suboptimal versions of a sentence and pick one that I don’t like, only because the one that would sound best and most natural doesn’t feel formal enough. This need for formality slows me down and prevents me from saying what I’d really like to. Informal English is more flexible, and allows me to say what I mean more directly. Informal English isn’t a devolution because it lets me express myself better.
Another example is with contractions — and this also shows that informal English has its own rules apart from formal English. In most people’s forms of formal English, contractions are a no-no. But informal English allows both contractions and their uncontracted counterparts, the latter usually being used for emphasis. Consider these song lyrics:
“I didn’t see this coming,
no, I did not.”
I find the emphasis of the second line to be greatly reduced in the formal equivalent “I did not see this coming, no, I did not.” In fact, I occasionally find when I’m writing in formal English that the uncontracted version sounds too strident, but my hands are tied.
Stan Carey also talked about this earlier in the week, specifically in the context of song lyrics. Informal language of course thrives in song lyrics, of course, but that doesn’t stop people grousing about it. But wouldn’t it be far worse to be stuck with formal songwriters, who report that they “can not get any satisfaction” or that you “are nothing but a hound”?
Stan’s post links to a January discussion by Geoff Pullum of what he called “Normal and Formal” language, and how the competent writer is the one who switches between them readily and appropriately, not the one who unfailingly aims for Formal. His use of “Normal” in place of “informal” is important. Informal language is normal. It’s how virtually all of us talk to each other, even the most highly educated or successful.
That’s part of why formal language can feel more difficult than informal. We use informal language constantly, and as a result it comes naturally to us. Formal language is rarer, and like tying a tie, it’s hard when you’re not used to doing it. Not only that, but it can end up feeling pretty unnatural when adhered to too closely. Pullum gives the example of commenter who wanted him to write “whom are you supposed to trust” (instead of who), despite its stiltedness. He didn’t, and he was right.
Summary: Informal language is not a devolved version of formal language. It has rules that formal language doesn’t (e.g., choosing whether to use a contraction), and is in general more natural and readable than formal language. Informal language is, as Geoff Pullum puts it, normal language. This means that while formal language can be good and at times more appropriate than informal, it’s not always right, and it shouldn’t be treated as the ideal form of language.