About That and Which

blank-slateOne of the things I find most fascinating about humans is our inability to compartmentalize functionality and aesthetic value. We understand that things we design have a purpose, and when an object fulfills its purpose we are happy. However, we are even happier when an object fulfills its purpose and is attractive at the same time. We humans are incurable adorners. It is not enough for us that a coat keep us warm and dry, we also require that it look good while doing its job.

Conversation, the oldest [ and best] of human tools (1), is no different. If we will adorn our cars with chrome, bumperstickers, and glasspack mufflers—what did we do with our oldest and best tool? What did we do to the only tool which every human is guaranteed to have in her possession EVERY time you meet her?

It’s probably clear by now that I wrote the preceding two paragraphs solely to get us to the ideas of accents and “bad” grammar. These are the adornments we add to the functionality of speech to make it aesthetically pleasing to us. In every case, I will argue, accents and bad grammar are our way of quickly establishing conversational hierarchies.

***Before we get to the hierarchical main point of this article, I want to take a minute to acknowledge that both accents and bad grammar are conversational mistakes. These mistakes get added to the original patterns of phonemes and “proper” grammar, because some group of humans liked the way the mistakes sounded. They kept repeating the mistake until it wasn’t [within the conversationally aberrant group] a mistake anymore. It’s easy to draw a somewhat painful and annoying conclusion from that last sentence:

Human preference is fundamentally a group exclusion principle.

Written in the sterilized lingo of Academia it doesn’t sound that bad, but look what happens if you write the idea as provocatively as possible:

All aesthetic statements are divisive.

Unfortunately both the provocative and sterile statements of the idea are true. Fortunately, we humans are not the sum of our miserable engineering. There is another principle which underlies our design which guarantees that We Shall Overcome our limitations. We are essentially… creative. [At some point I would like to rescue Aesthetics from the philosophical dung heap where it fermented, but this is not the space for that. Group exclusion is the heaviest albatross around our vestigial necks, but it is not our definition. In my ontology, creativity is the first principle. It is this aspect of us that defines us. It is this aspect of us that, eventually, validates an omnipresent humanism. We can RE-make what is already made. We can re-fabricate.]***

Getting back on track, we can say that accents and bad grammar, while undeniably counting as deviations from standard pronunciation and grammar, still follow rules. Caucasian American Southern Bad Grammar emphatically approves of something like:

That don’t make a lick of sense

But would strenuously object to:

I doesn’t like it when my corn touches my lima beans.

Subject verb disagreement has THE SAME number of rules in Caucasian American Southern Bad Grammar as it does in Proper English Grammar. You can’t know ALL the rules of CASBG unless you were born, white, in the south, or you spend a lot of time in white southern culture.

[In the spirit of idea attribution disclosure, I once read an article about this topic. It was several years ago, and I was unable to find the article again by randomly googling. In other words, these ideas about bad grammar’s rules are not mine. Whatever errors result from the application of these unowned ideas, are mine.]

Although there is no article [I am aware of] that formalizes accent usage, even a nominally species aware human must recognize that there are rules. If accents weren’t hard to get right, Meryl Steep woul not have a lot of those NINETEEN Academy Award nominations she has racked up over the years.

I take it as proved that accents and bad grammar exist as heuristics for establishing group membership. In the absence of physical markers, the ways in which we speak are the only method available to us of establishing how much of our group culture a stranger understands. They are the only routes available to us of trusting a stranger. In times of hardship they are also an ethical shortcut to determining how to divide limited resources.

We are now prepared to answer the main question of this article:

How do the ways in which we speak also divide us into social power groups?

[We’ll make the case in the broadest strokes possible at first, and then we’ll narrow in our Actual Target, screenwriting.]

What is wrong, from the standpoint of Proper English Grammar, with this sentence?

What will we do to the only tool which every human is guaranteed to have in their possession EVERY time you meet them? (3)

Grammatical Purists [and Tests of Standard Written English administered by the College Board and now called, I think, Writing Skills tests] would say there is not agreement between the subject and the pronouns used to replace it. Grammatical purists say we should use the singular pronouns to match the singular subject. Additionally, convention has determined that, when the singular pronoun could refer to either gender, we are to use the masculine pronoun as replacement.

Is there not an inherent power message in that convention of “proper” grammar?

If you’ve followed my posts for any length of time you know that I defy convention by always using the feminine pronoun in all cases where either gender is acceptable. I do this because I think the way we speak does matter, and yet I also know how thoroughly the grammatical purists will excoriate one, if one gets this wrong.

Personally, I think the excoriations of grammatical purists on this matter are overblown. We should be allowed to use “their” and “them” and not fear someone is going to think we don’t know which pronoun we ought to use. Until the purists give up and admit their argumentation does not account for the subliminal message delivered to little girls growing up fluent in a language which always favors little boys, I will continue to use the feminine gender whenever either would be correct. A group of males and females should NEVER be equivalent to a group of males. Words are far more vicious than people give them credit for being. The marginalization inherent in conventional grammar is an unacceptable power grab by males.

I think that example shows how language in general is used to set up power hierarchies, but how do we generalize the pronoun example to the specific case of accents and bad grammar?

Step one is to realize that all conversations use some form of adjacency pairs. The second step is see how these adjacency pairs always contain an implicit promise of a power struggle. Step three occurs when you see how the specific pairs used determine the win/loss outcome. Power flows from the loser to the winner

We’ll begin, as seems sequentially appropriate, with step one. I will admit, first, that I am about to take liberties with the idea of adjacency pairs as they have been developed in linguistics. I further admit that I still have not done the research that would allow my actions to be justified. However, none of those admissions dissuade me.

What interests me most about the idea of adjacency pairs is how there is “physical” necessity in how they operate. I use the term physical rather than logical to illustrate that conversation is not litigated by verbal determinism. Yet, there are rules. The rules remind me of physical laws in that we NEVER expect the law of gravity to suffer a violation at the hands of a Willful Mass, but it is not impossible that gravity be violated. As it goes with gravity, so it goes with conversation. If I ask:

What is your name?

Everyone in the world expects you to answer with… your name. If you were to respond with:

Colorless green ideas.

Everyone in the world would understand that you are not following the necessity implicit in the conversationally required adjacency pair. You have violated my trust. I will now be very wary of you.

What I would like to argue is that every spoken sentence has a complement. The response to any dialogue input must come from a tightly bounded field of possibilities. This is easiest to see in the adjacency pairs because, ordinarily, that field of possibilities is limited to one [at most a few] complementary responses.

Imagine what happens when a parent asks a child for permission to go to a friend’s house.

Can I go to Sean’s house?

We know the parent MUST give a yes or a no. We further expect the parent to provide support for her answer [although, being parents, they don’t have to.]

No. It’s too close to dinner time.

But he’s got the new Call of Duty!

Remember to ask me earlier tomorrow.

Again, I wrote these lines in twenty seconds, so I make no claims on their merit, but look how much information they contain. You could sort these characters even if there were no cues.

Can I go to Sean’s house?

No. It’s too close to dinner time.

But he’s got the new Call of Duty!

Remember to ask me earlier tomorrow.

This tiny conversation resolves the issue of whether or not the child gets to go to his friend’s house. Stripped of its human-specific content, it has the following form:

1. A request.
2. The request is denied.
3. A reason is supplied for the denial.
4. A counter reason is supplied for approval.
5. Implicit denial of the counter reason.
6. A lesson for how to get future requests approved is supplied.

If the parent wants to deny the child’s request, the path outlined in those six steps is the ONLY way this conversation can go. It can be shorter [it could end at line 2], or it could be longer, but the form will always be the same. [Longer dialogues will just repeat steps 3-6. Notice what continued repetitions of steps 3-6 says about the power dynamic between the parent and child.]

I believe that when a reader reads a line of your dialogue her mind is nimble enough to do elementary calculations on the response possibility field. She is predicting where the conversation will head based on where it began and her prior knowledge of conversational forms. It seems easy to suggest that:

Writing great dialogue involves making your lines adhere to traditional conversational forms as little as possible.

If you upset a reader’s expectations, you necessarily engage a reader. Use the physical logic of the response possibility field to your advantage.Choose from outside the field whenever possible.Or:

Allow your characters to indulge in colorless green ideas.

The next articles will pick up the [half completed] hierarchical thread, tie this to conversational power [and winners and losers], and then finally sum up with examples from screenplays universally regarded as dialogue exemplars.

The first two articles in this series can be found here:

1. Subtext Revisited

2. Literary Slide Rules


1. I can’t do the research required to show conversation is the oldest of human tools, but I do believe this is true. Basically, I just think about how hard it would be to make any complex tool without being able to talk about it with the other members of your group. As I go through the list of [simple] complex tools we humans might have invented before speech, I find none that looks like it is simple enough for a non-speaking homo-sapiens to devise on her own.

In addition to the observation above, speech seems to me to be the only tool which has the unique characteristic of being primitive. It doesn’t require the simultaneous invention of other tools for its own invention. To see this, think about how many inventions have to be in place before a shirt can be made:

1. Shirt Material
2. Needle
3. Thread
4. Sharp instrument for cutting “cloth”

A shirt is ridiculously complex. It can’t be invented before the needle, yet why do you invent a needle if not to make a shirt?

Speech is the only human tool that doesn’t get lost in a maze of chicken and egg discussions about which came first. Speech requires two things:

A. Phonemes
B. Grammar

I’ll go ahead and be controversial [at least to Stephen Pinker] by declaring, WE ARE BORN with those two things. Speech is a tool because it shapes the raw material present in the human condition [phonemes and grammar] into:

C. Meaning

3. I don’t know whether the Grammatical Purists would say that my use of “which” instead of “that” is correct or not. I decline to take the time to parse my sentence for its restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses. My favorite article on the “that vs. which” topic was written by the already mentioned Stephen Pinker. I may not agree with him about Blank Slates, but I love what he was to say about which and that. (4)

4. I love the confusion of meaning in the phrase “about which and that” so much that I’m going to use it as the title of this article. Subtext Much? (5)

5. I should make a T-Shirt that says Subtext Much? And carry it in a merchandising section of the website. On the front “Subtext Much?” on the back “SearchingforCharlieKaufman” overtop a picture of Stephen Pinker. It would be a hilarious use [to me] of irony. Joel Barish, omnipresent humanist, and defeater of group exclusions engaging in wildly exclusionist behavior. I suppose:
You cannot defeat a thing if you cannot recognize its existence… in yourself.


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