A recent discussion on Twitter about the use of “passed away” instead of “died” saw moral outrage burn at an all-time high. “‘Passed’ is for bowel motions,” someone said. “‘Passed’ is a euphemism with religious connotations,” another argued. But I recently passed a friend on the way to the shops without defecating or converting to Christianity and it made me think – what is “right” when it comes to language, and who and what power structures get to determine this? When it comes to writing fiction, I can spend hours poring over a sentence to ensure it’s the sharpest it can be. So why do I despise pedantry? That niggling over minor “errors” that to me signals a kind of elitism?
I tend to attract pedants. It’s like I have a flashing sign on my forehead saying “correct me”, which strikes glee in the hearts of older white males. Usually, it’s my pronunciation. (I struggle to say pronunciation correctly. That absent “o” always gets me. Colander and chorizo are also a struggle). Sometimes I use less instead of fewer. I tend to say “what’s if?”
Much of the time, our mispronunciations come from reading something before hearing it spoken. We can go a long time between reading a word, and hearing it said aloud. It logically follows that those who read extensively as children (like myself) will say a few words incorrectly because they formed them in their head first. Hardly a crime! We all know English is an absurd language. Look at tough, cough, through and tell me why they don’t rhyme, yet bough rhymes with cow.
Don’t get me wrong, I find subtle correction helpful – in fact in the right context, I like it. (If I’m talking about an accident my grandmother had, that’s not the time to point out the tautology of “fell down”). For example, I used to muddle my pronouns, saying “He’s coming to the shops with my friend and I”. One of those older white males corrected me and gave me the tool to not make the same mistake again (take out the other object – you wouldn’t say he’s coming to the shops with “I”) Aha! It made sense. I was pleased. I aspire to be articulate and spend less of my life feeling like a bumbling fool. Also, I must speak in public. It’s written into publishing contracts to prevent authors from spending the months after their books hit the shelves sitting in a dim room with their fingers in their ears.
Yet despite their aspirations for perfection, pedants often get it wrong. The same male who had assisted me with pronouns went on to correct a friend of mine on how to say “Whanganui” despite the fact she was Māori, hailed from Whanganui, and actually understood the local dialect. Unlike him. Let’s just say that conversation didn’t end quite as happily.
Yet I am guilty of pedantry from time to time. A colleague talked about the day’s learnings, and I whispered under my breath, lessons, it’s lessons. But then I thought about it. What’s actually wrong with learnings? Did I understand her meaning? Is “learnings” in some way better? I then decided “learnings” is actually quite an excellent active-sounding word. I now employ it frequently, and relish a good argument with a pedant who takes exception to it. I also allow my daughter to speak as she pleases. Last week we had a conversation on gratitude and saying thank you, and demonstrating her learnings the next day, she said, “Mummy, thank you for borning me.” I wouldn’t have had it said any other way.
To return to “died” versus “passed away”. As a nurse, I alternate between the two, depending on who I’m speaking to. Sometimes “died” seems too harsh, too cold, not quite right. Language is more than just “getting it right” – it’s also about reading subtle clues in the listener and how they may need to be spoken to. And as an Indonesian friend pointed out, “passed away” is a superior translation for “died” for many cultures.
Breaking language rules, pushing beyond them, can be a sign of genius across the arts, underscoring that language evolves and changes. The Booker prize-winning book, Girl, Woman, Other, contains paragraph after paragraph that eschews full stops. Lucy Ellman’s brilliant tome, Ducks, Newburyport doesn’t even contain paragraphs, demonstrating the dictum, “You can do whatever you want if you can do it well”. But one person doesn’t change language. It’s the gradual push of the masses in a continual process of trial and adoption. Pedants fear this, but perhaps it is them that are the biggest threat to language with their small, suffocating assaults. Though I would argue, in the passage of time, they possess much the same power as a man shaking a fist at a cloud.
Language is not a dead thing. It’s alive, it grows, it changes, it reflects who we are and where we’ve come from. Our Pasifika and Māori communities will enrich our language with words of their own, and new ways of framing how we occupy our spaces. And our young people, no matter how much correction they receive from the cheugies, will shape us new words that we may spurn, or attempt to adopt, albeit sometimes incorrectly.