Friday 20 March 2020

Opportunism and Fastidiousness in Language

Many, probably most, intelligent speakers and thinkers are linguistic opportunists. They treat words and phrases as tools to convey things that they are already thinking in proto-linguistic or rough linguistic form, and if some construction seems likely to do the conveying job, they use it. 

Linguistic opportunism is higher in private communication than in public, and higher in informal writing than in formal writing. The opposite of linguistic opportunism is linguistic fastidiousness. Analytic philosophy is characterised by high linguistic fastidiousness, while other types of philosophy are often linguistically opportunistic.

Certain moves that may at first seem like moves of fastidiousness belie an underlying opportunism. For example, an linguistic opportunist may abandon a formulation and self-correct to a formulation which lets their underlying message come through clearly, where a stickler may take the time and effort to clarify the sense in which what they said was correct although potentially misleading.

(I heard an example of this in an episode of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast, but I can't remember the details. Carlin is an interesting example of a fairly fastidious opportunist. As I see it, his underlying goal makes him fundamentally an opportunist. His goal is to paint pictures with words, to move the listener, and to convey history. But he often becomes self-conscious about language. Nevertheless, this is all kept in the service of the goal, and so does not go into niceties that the true stickler would go into.)

What drives the stickler? In large part and in many cases, their motivation takes the form of an intrinsic interest in language and fine distinctions. (But remember, one may ask why such an interest should ever arise in the first place.) As someone with marked stickler tendencies myself - tendencies which have at certain points in my development reached nearly pathological levels - there are many times when I have become interested in some linguistic or conceptual issue raised by some construction that has been used, where this definitely only detracts from the task of staying on-message. But sticklerhood is not always like this. Sometimes it is motivated by real, felt concern with the ongoing adequacy of the linguistic resources to the task at hand. 

Even the purer form of sticklerhood, which unambiguously cuts against the grain of achieving the purpose of the discourse from which it arises, may have a justification beyond the intrinsic interest of reflecting on language and concepts. The stickler may be seen as concerning themselves with utility too. Not with having the right tools for the task at hand, but with maintaining a large, powerful toolkit for whatever may come next. And sometimes this goal may be in conflict with an opportunistic strategy which would work well for current purposes.

It may seem self-evident that the linguistic opportunist is a friend of linguistic innovation, the fastidious stickler a foe. But this is too quick. By maintaining order and consistency, the stickler helps to cultivate an environment in which buildings can be erected which, if the opportunist held sway, would crumble into confusion.