“Write me”, an American linguistic regression

Note from the Shawn of the future

A couple of years after writing this I revisited it while migrating my blog. It really made me laugh. This is a typical example of me, I like thinking things through. When reading this it could be a bit ambiguous and even come off as a bit arrogant or offensive, but that simply isn’t the spirit in which it was written. It was written purely as an “intellectual tease”, like throwing a “brain spanner” at my American friends. This is just me, having fun, thinking about English! It was actually shared once on twitter, probably by an American friend, who said “grammar nazi of the day”– well said!

The syntax of language

A few months ago I had the privilege of being in an interview with my universities local head of department of Chinese, he was an experienced linguist of about sixty, he had learned Chinese as a second language much like I am doing now. In our interview we discussed a few aspects of language and linguistics in general, one of the things we discussed confirmed a belief that I already had: among other aspects of language, syntax exists to grant the users greater specificity. One of the reasons we have grammar is to allow us to use our language to match or mould to fit daily human experience with all of its nuances of feeling and thought and action.

For instance “write me”

I claim that in mainstream, normal / “proper” English, if you were to construct a sentence that had the following format “Hey (name), would you please write XYZ” where XYZ is any single English word, then this sentence is a request for this person to take a some kind of writing tool, and some kind of paper and literally take the writing tool and write down the word XYZ on that paper or wall or whatever. This is the grammar of our language.

Now in the previous example, there are a few examples of words where the sentence would seem incomplete because of other grammatical constructions. For example, adding a preposition “Hey Shawn, would you please write about…”, or “Hey Shawn, would you please write to…” then I guess we would be expecting some noun after that to specific what to write about or who to write to. But this is exactly my point.

In current American English vernacular the words “write me” actually mean (according to the rest of the world) “write to me” meaning, in more explicit terms, to write a letter to me. For the rest of the world, the words “write me” literally mean to write down the word “me”, this is syntactically consistent with all of the rest of the usage of the word “write” followed by a noun.

Therefore I claim that this vernacular is a linguistic regression, as it makes an exception to syntactical rules and can lead to ambiguity. There are also other exceptions in this particular American vernacular with a similar format “She still hasn’t written me”, “I don’t want to write him”, “why won’t she write me?”, “writing him is just boring” and so on. Aside from simply sounding unmelodious for the rest of the world, this is simply incorrect according to the grammar of English. Nevertheless with an open mind I will present a reasonable argument for them (the people who use this grammar) which has a face towards linguistic evolution, … and then why that is still rubbish.

The nevertheless

Nevertheless, one could just as easily argue that this structure is a linguistic progression, one could logically argue that the number of instances of us actually saying the words “write me” meaning “write the word me” are very small compared to the number of instances of us saying “write to me”, meaning that some could reasonably argue that this inadvertent adaptation of English grammar in the US is actually a step towards a more efficient and compact way of communicating this single thought, or to reiterate in other words, based simply on the volume of how many times in one’s life one is likely to say “write to me” as opposed to how many times one would say “write the word me”, which one is more common?

I would venture “write to me”, thus they could argue that the contraction “write me” is better suited meaning “write to me” than “write the word me” because, simply put, in day to day English, the phrase “write to me” is more commonly used than the phrase “write the word me” . Potentially this argument is true and reasonable. However, it introduces a whole new set of ambiguity. What then does the sentence “write the dog” mean? Does it mean to write a letter to the dog or does it mean to write the words “the dog”?

My counter-counter argument could also flow in the following direction: the more exceptions we introduce into our language (in this example, “write me” means “write to me” but “write the dog” means “write the words ‘the dog’”) the less general it becomes, the harder it becomes to learn the language and the more ambiguous it becomes, if we were engaged in an attempt to create the perfect language it would be a language where ambiguity is minimalised as exceptions are also minimalised, and where general rules and syntax are logical, intuitive and consistent.

So: for any person claiming that this grammatical use of the words “write me” is more efficient; perhaps they are correct. But this is efficiency at the cost of propriety, and, at a deeper level: at the cost of “approaching perfection”!

Having said all this, I still love Stargate, Star Trek, and other geeky, intelligent and linguistically advanced programs, articles and erudition which originate from America!

Shawn

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