Even As We Speak: Criticism

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To deal with criticism positively may require good self-esteem and some assertiveness skills, you may find our pages: Improving Self-Esteem and Assertiveness useful. There are two types of criticism - constructive and destructive — learning to recognise the difference between the two can help you deal with any criticism you may receive. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving. When challenged by another person, it is common to react in a negative manner.

Consider how negative reactions make you look — and more importantly how they make you feel.

We Speak for Ourselves

The way in which you choose to handle criticism has a knock-on effect in various aspects of your life, therefore it is better to identify ways in which you can benefit from criticism and use it to your advantage to be a stronger and more able person. The difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is the way in which comments are delivered. Although both forms are challenging your ideas, character or ability, when someone is giving destructive criticism it can hurt your pride and have negative effects on your self-esteem and confidence.

Destructive criticism is often just thoughtlessness by another person, but it can also be deliberately malicious and hurtful. Constructive criticism , on the other hand, is designed to point out your mistakes, but also show you where and how improvements can be made.

Constructive criticism should be viewed as useful feedback that can help you improve yourself rather than put you down. When criticism is constructive it is usually easier to accept, even if it still hurts a little. In either scenario always try to remember that you can use criticism to your advantage.


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Some individuals are critical by nature and do not always realise that they are hurting the feelings of another person. If you know a person who is critical of everything try not to take their comments too seriously, as this is just part of their character trait. Somehow, it seems to unite bigots and those of a relatively progressive mindset, frequently appropriated as an endnote to what can often be explosive discussions over immigration. If the phrase were a country, it would be Switzerland. Indeed, you as the language learner should have the final say over exactly what you need to learn in order to get by.

What I take issue with is this: people seldom debate the details that get overlooked when they insist that foreign nationals learn English. The details that the assertion misses pertain to two main ideas. Therein also lies the possibility that those heard speaking their own language are assumed not to be able to speak English, or to have failed to learn it.

Even if they could not speak English, it is utterly deplorable to intimidate and scorn somebody on the basis of their language.

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What is largely missing is the idea that there is any pleasure or instruction to be derived from considering what makes good usage good. Rather, grammar comes increasingly to be regarded as a mandarin code that requires only ritual justification. And, for all the heated polemics over the importance of grammar, it appears that each party at least implicitly accepts this view.

Linguists, of course, have been arguing for a long time that the rules of traditional grammar have no scientific or logical justification, and that the only reason grammarians consider certain usages "correct" is that they happen to have been adopted by the privileged classes in the past. As the linguists Anthony Kroch and Cathy Small put it in a recent article, "prescriptivism [that is, traditional grammar] is simply the ideology by which the guardians of the standard language impose their linguistic norms on people who have perfectly serviceable norms of their own.

Nonetheless, the linguists have won over a large part of the educational establishment, so that "correct English" has come to mean no more than "standard English," the English spoken by the educated middle class. A few radicals have gone on to argue that traditional grammar, as an instrument of racism and class oppression, has no place in the school curriculum. But more often educators counsel an enlightened hypocrisy: standard English should be taught because there are still benighted employers who take stock in such things.

This position is put concisely by Jim Quinn, whose American Tongue and Cheek is a lively and informative popularization of the linguists' views.

The fact remains that there is a way of writing that is necessary to success, just as there are rules about which fork to use at an expensive restaurant. And preparing children for success means preparing them to manipulate those rules, just as they have to be taught to manipulate the salad fork and demitasse spoon. To see the state to which things have fallen, one need only compare Fowler with a modern composition text and a modern prescriptive grammarian on a vexed point of grammar -- the problem of which pronoun to use with an antecedent like each or anyone.

But just as French lacks our power of distinguishing without additional words between his, her, and its, so we lack the French power of saying in one word his-or-her. C is here recommended. It involves the convention that where the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important he and his shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man, or say a man homo instead of a man vir.

Whether that. Fowler's article is a model of the traditional grammatical method. He begins by acknowledging the problem, and then addresses it with arguments from precedent and analogy, being careful to distinguish between the grammatical questions that lie within his brief and the political questions that lie outside it. As in all good homilies, it is the method, not the text, that matters; read Fowler on this and you will have an idea of how he might come at a wholly different problem.

Now contrast the approach to the problem taken by the Harbrace College Handbook , a standard text in college composition classes since its publication, in Its great virtue is that it is ideally organized to meet the needs of a teacher who may have to correct two or three hundred pages of student writing every week. Inside the back cover of the book is a table in which grammatical errors are classified into family, genus, and species, and are assigned code numbers.

The point at issue is listed as: "6b 1 Agreement: Pronoun and Antecedent: Man, each, etc.


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There he can read I quote from the seventh edition and omit some example sentences :. These bare instructions give no reason at all for choosing the singular pronoun. In fact, there is no mention of an error in the use of the plural, which is labeled not "incorrect" or "illogical" but merely "formal," as if the difference between plural and singular were on a level with the difference between cop and policeman , or horse and steed. The entry does touch on a point that is quite interesting to theoretical linguists, to the effect that English grammar does not generally allow the singular pronoun with an antecedent like everyone when that antecedent is not in the same clause.

Dealing with Critical People

But the Handbook says only that the sentence is "illogical," giving no indication of what point of logic is violated. What is the student to make of that, especially since the Handbook has not explained the use of the singular as being "logical" in the first place? The student who finds "6b 1 " cropping up on his compositions may learn to rectify the error, but only in the way he learns to rectify his misspellings: by rote, learning nothing else in the process. The linguists are at least forthright in their rejection of linguistic morality.

Their opponents, the defenders of traditional values, are more deceptive. They talk a great deal about morality, but in millenarian tones, as if the rules of grammar were matters of revealed truth rather than the tentative conclusions of thoughtful argument. Here is John Simon on the same point of grammar:.

And don't let fanatical feminists convince you that it must be "as he or she pleases," which is clumsy and usually serves no other purpose than that of placating the kind of extremist who does not deserve to be placated. The impersonal "he" covers both sexes. For Simon, the whole matter is cut and dried, exactly as it is for the Harbrace College Handbook , except that his world is divided into the "thickheaded" and "those who know better. Indeed, he has written elsewhere: "There is, I believe, a morality of language: an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us.

Johnson and Fowler did not regard themselves as mere keepers of the sacred flame. Simon's shots at feminists are also instructive. For him, a commitment to correct grammar is naturally associated with a conservative ideology. Like William Safire and William Buckley, he seems to see good grammar as bathed in the same rosy glow that surrounds the other traditional institutions that liberal America has forsaken. This indicates a shift of some importance. For most of its history the English grammatical tradition has been associated with classical liberalism.

Its earlier defenders, from Johnson to Auden and Orwell, would probably be distressed to learn that their standard had been taken up by the right. But, then, the ideal of grammar that the conservatives champion is much changed from what the earlier grammarians had in mind. Simon is particularly shrill, but other writers on the state of the language are equally dogmatic.

Edwin Newman and Richard Mitchell the "Underground Grammarian" write books about the language that rarely, if ever, cite a dictionary or a standard grammar; evidently one just knows these things. William Safire is a different story. Affable and self-effacing "I may not know much about grammar, but. These are word-lovers who live to catch out the mighty in a misused whom ; though their zeal is commendable, their authority is suspect. The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking… not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules. There is nothing in modern writing about the language that is more pathetic than attempts to fix the blame for the "problem" whatever the problem is understood to be on this or that small group.

If the English grammatical tradition has declined, this is the result of basic changes in our attitude toward the language, themselves the consequences of far-reaching social changes. It is not a case of the schools having "failed in their duty. Their criticisms of the grammatical tradition are overstated, we will see, but they are much closer to the mark when they describe the contemporary scene, for the mastery of grammar has come to be considered largely a social accomplishment. And the traditionalists like Simon and Newman are even less to blame; they are simply moving into the cultural vacuum.

Before we can talk about how to put grammar back on its moral and intellectual feet, we must consider what grammatical criticism has been all about in the English-speaking world, and how we have come to the present sad state of affairs. We usually assume that good English is based on a few simple and unexceptionable maxims. One reason for the canonization of clarity and logicality is that for us the notion of good usage is applicable only to the narrow class of writing that we call expository prose. Novelists and poets simply aren't held to the rules of grammar; what they do is "creative writing," a thing apart.

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But, again, such a sharp distinction is peculiar to modern English; in Italian and French--as well as in the English written before the nineteenth century--the language of poetry is not exempt from the requirements of correctness, unless the poem has been expressly written in dialect.

This disregard for the grammar of poetry and fiction is connected with another curious feature of English-language values: unlike speakers of most Continental languages, we do not hold that there is a single "correct" accent, and we permit each area to set its own pronunciation standards. The New Yorker who drops his "r"s or the Englishman who pronounces his may be looked down on, but he is guilty only of a social gaffe, like the man who wears a polyester leisure suit.

It is inconceivable that a New York City teacher would tell his pupils that pronouncing "horse" to rhyme with "sauce" is "not English," in the way that a Tuscan teacher might tell his pupils that it is "not Italian" to pronounce "casa" as "hasa. Our linguistic values, being so particular to English, are by no means absolute or immutable. They must change, as they have already changed, along with the social composition of the English-speaking world. It was because of sweeping social changes in the eighteenth century that our present system of values arose. The new values were created in part by the rise of the middle class, with a corresponding increase in literacy; in part by the importation of the German-speaking Hanover court; and in part by the new conception of English as the language that extended over the whole of Great Britain and then the colonies.

An immediate effect of these changes was the emergence of a new intellectual class, independent of aristocratic patronage, which came to cultural authority. If they did not manage to, as they put it, "ascertain" the English language in a fixed form for all time, they did at least succeed in establishing the linguistic ground rules that would hold for the next two hundred years. Unlike their Continental contemporaries, the English grammarians rejected the notion that national institutions should have any role in determining the models of correct usage.

In , Swift had seconded earlier suggestions by Dryden and others that an English academy be established, on the model of the Italian and French ones, and only the fall of the Tory government prevented his plan from being realized.

By mid-century, however, the idea was generally opposed, as inconsistent with what Johnson called "the spirit of English liberty. As Garrick wrote:. For the grammarians of the Age of Reason, the advantage of literary models was that their superiority could be defended by appeals to logic and sensibility. For the first time, a distinction was made between those parts of grammar that could be rationalized--diction, syntax, and the like--and those parts, like pronunciation, that were left to be ruled by arbitrary fashion.

Modern techniques of grammatical argument were introduced in this period: justification by logic, by literary precedent, by analogy, and by etymology. In fact, a good many of the specific dictates of prescriptive grammar were introduced then. It may be either consoling or disheartening to realize that grammarians have been railing for more than two hundred years against usages like It's me, the tallest of the two , and the man who I saw , with no sign of a resolution either way.

The grammarians have won some battles over the years-- most notably against the innocuous ain't , which educated speakers now use only in a jocular way.

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They have lost others, such as the fight to maintain a distinction between shall and will , which never really caught on outside of England. The basic linguistic values established in the eighteenth century were rarely challenged over the next hundred and fifty years. In Jacksonian America, there was a brief reaction against the imposition of Old World grammatical values, but this was little more than a provincial rebellion, and it subsided, with the rest of such populism, by the Gilded Age. It was not until the s and s that the traditional doctrines were rejected by a significant part of the cultural elite.

In the forefront of the attack were the "structural linguists," as they then styled themselves. The battle culminated in the brouhaha over the publication in of Webster's Third New International , which refused to label usages like ain't and to contact as incorrect or even colloquial. Despite the fulminations of Dwight Macdonald and Jacques Barzun and Nero Wolfe, who burned his copy page by page , the linguists succeeded in convincing most of the educational establishment of the rightness of their views.

But they could not sway the body of educated public opinion; hence the cold war that endures to this day. Defenders of the grammatical old order often speak of the linguists as a cabal of intriguers who have singlehandedly undermined traditional values. Jacques Barzun wrote that "modern linguists bear a grave responsibility.

The linguists could have had so wide an effect on the attitudes of educators only by addressing areas of general concern. In fact, the linguists based their attack on two sound points that appealed to the public's growing respect for science and increased awareness of cultural pluralism. First, every language is a complex system with an internal logic, the full understanding of which requires scientific investigation. And second, since nonstandard forms of English possess internal logic just as standard English does, they are not inherently inferior; rather, the doctrines of prescriptive grammar reflect covert class prejudice and racism.

I think that linguists have been wrong in their conclusions about the value of traditional grammar. It may be true that only those with technical expertise can begin to understand the workings of language -- and even to them, many of the basic issues remain as controversial as the causes of inflation. Still, it does not follow that the layman cannot decide for himself what is right and wrong.

From the point of view of modern linguistics, Fowler knew very little about the mechanics of grammar, but he had exquisite intuitions about what sounded right and, more important, the capacity to reflect on these intuitions in a reasoned way. It is not important that he was unsuccessful in formulating general rules that would specify exactly when everyone must be followed by he , and when a plural verb should follow a collective noun. When grammar consists of nothing but such rules, in fact, it becomes frozen and useless, because there are always cases that the rules do not cover, or in which two rules contradict each other.

Should we say We have each taken his coat or It is he whom I was going to see or Only the ear knows. What Fowler does teach is an approach to grammatical problems that can be cranked up anew for each situation. In the end, that is what all good writers rely on. Linguistics can help here; it provides a language for talking about language a "meta-language," in the trade , which is much more precise than the mysterious and dimly remembered classifications of traditional grammar.

Terms like "predicate nominative" may have a limited applicability to Latin, but they were not very useful for talking about English even in the days when educated speakers were presumed to have some familiarity with the classical languages.

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