Monday, September 19, 2011

Point of view

Many writers confuse their readers by mishandling point of view. For example, they state an opinion without clearly indicating who holds that opinion.

For example, Anonymous commented on my post, “A waiter who speaks English.” Here is his comment, with my analysis after each sentence:

Apparently, wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive.

[Without the word “Apparently,” the sentence would be a statement of the writer’s opinion (the world as seen from the writer’s point of view). With the the word “Apparently,” the sentence suggests that the writer is sarcastically expressing his disagreement with someone else’s opinion. The writer has not yet named this person or these persons.]

Linguist Steven Pinker has explained that language is used as a means to convey status.

[Does Steven Pinker hold the opinion in the first sentence; i.e., that “wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive”? The writer does not make this clear.]

The paradigm nowadays is not to show you’re educated or that you have good manners but that you are “cool”.

[Is this “paradigm” Mr. Pinker’s point of view? Or is it a shift to someone else’s point of view? By using the word “nowadays,” the writer may be suggesting that Mr. Pinker’s opinion (whatever it may have been) was once valid but is now out of date.]

So people sometimes overact, which can be annoying – you do not need to impress everybody.

[The word “So” suggests that the people who use non-standard dialect in order to sound cool are the people who “sometimes overact.” However, it is not clear. Nor is it clear who is being annoyed: it is all the hearers of the cool peoples’ non-standard dialect, or only those hearers who prefer standard dialect? The writer further confuses the reader by switching into second person with “you do not need to impress everybody.” Is “you” the overacting non-standard-dialect speaker? If so, is the writer saying that it’s OK for him to annoy his standard-dialect-preferring hearers or that it’s OK for him to sound less than totally cool and thereby fail “to impress everybody” who is cooler than he is?]

My guess as to what Anonymous meant to say

People use language not only to convey information but also to declare their status. A century ago, “status” generally meant education and manners; today it generally means ignorance and uncouthness. In order to sound ignorant and uncouth, many speakers affect a non-standard dialect. Many overdo it, annoying hearers who prefer to hear standard dialect. However, these hearers must silently suffer the annoyance, because society now considers it offensive to criticize people for being (or pretending to be) ignorant and uncouth.

The Takeaway: If your copy includes more than one point of view, let the reader know when you are switching from one point of view to another. Don’t make you reader keep wondering, “Who’s saying this?” “Who’s saying that?”

See disclaimer.

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