Tag Archives: Language

Contextual Sense


“When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
–Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass’

I love how the English language is so flexible. Of course there are rules, but there are also exceptions. And there are exceptions to the exceptions! These things bothered me no end when I was a child. Should it be ‘who’ or ‘whom’? How can the same word mean three different things when used in three different sentences? You know what I mean.

In fact, some things still confuse me. And many grammatical mistakes irk me no end (people using “your” instead of “you’re”, saying “literally” when they mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively”). However, I still love the fact that I can say something like, “I’m so technologically handicapped that I can’t even operate a hair-dryer without electrocuting myself”, and still make sense! (And if I’m still not making sense to you, ‘technologically handicapped’ isn’t really a thing.)

I think what Carroll was trying to say through Humpty Dumpty is that context is as important in English language as the rules of grammar. An example is his extremely famous poem ‘Jabberwocky’. An excerpt:
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
The grammar and syntax are perfect, but the verse itself is nonsensical; yet we love the poem and understand it exactly how it’s meant to be understood. (Like Alice says after finishing the poem, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”)

Another fine example of the importance of context is Douglas Adams’ Vogon poetry from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’:
“Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”
We might not know the meaning of the words, but we get the gist anyway; and we realize first-hand why Vogon poetry is the third worst in the Universe. (If you want to know the worst and the second worst poetry in the universe, read the book. I assure you it’ll be worth it.)

The fluidity and voracity of the English language is what makes it so universal. All the Grammar Nazis notwithstanding–and I confess I’m an occasional milder version, if there is such a thing, myself–that is the most interesting and fun thing about writing!

Like Alice, I might not always say what I mean, but “at least I mean what I say”!

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