What on earth do we mean when we say “language”? The COED has five distinct meanings, of which the first is probably the most easily recognised:

▸ a A system of human communication using words, written and spoken, and particular ways of combining them; any such system employed by a community, a nation, etc. ME.

Fair enough – it dates to middle English and describes a very clearly human activity. Mind you, it then spoils things a little by declaring:

▸ b transf. A mode of communication by inarticulate sounds used by lower animals, birds, etc. ME.

And then it gets more abstract:

▸ c transf. A non-verbal method of human communication, as gesture or facial expression, hand-signing, etc.; a means of artistic expression, as dance, music, or painting. E17.
▸ d A way of interpreting or ordering experience shared by a group, a community, etc.; a common code or pattern of behaviour. E20.

So, the original, direct meaning of Language has spilled over into some wide areas of human behaviour and methods of understanding each other. Spotting the difference between language (meaning English) and language (meaning the features of the language called English ) has become a context thing.

To use a metaphor taken from fishermen fisherwomen fisherfolk people who hunt fish, then I guess we could say that the extended thing  Language is a bit like a big net. It captures and gathers up and finds a place for things like grammar, syntax, punctuation and usage as well as just about every feature of – well, let’s say English – that hasn’t got a home to go to. Everything is brought home and sorted out later in the warehouse.

Actually, that leaves a lot to sort out.

Let’s see if we can make sense of this.

  • there is a label language for the whole thing: everything caught up in the net, like words, meanings, structure and grammar, end purposes… Look at the OED.
  • there is a specialised study area analysing for all of the ways we make words work for us. That’s also language (but not Linguistics.)
  • then there is the process of making the words work for us in special ways. You guessed it:  language again, sometimes with “features” tagged on for teaching purposes.

It’s not hard to see how non-native speakers get confused here. Native speakers, on the other hand, never think about it until bloody-minded teachers get on their case, causing terminal and lifelong confusion in tender young minds.

In the “Language Tools” section, I’ve tried to present some language features – meaning the processes, the technical bits – to help us understand what they are and how they work. The basic classification so far is

  • Grammar: How the words fit together to make sense of ideas.
  • Punctuation: How punctuation works to make meaning clear.
  • Usage: Thoughts about special language features, including the minefield of disputed usages.
  • Figures of Speech: using words to paint pictures in the mind.
  • Unclassified: to hold things which don’t easily fit anywhere else.

and the list of posts appears on the right-hand sidebar of the Language Tools pages, which removes my responsibility to make any more hot-link internal references within posts.

Other pages under the Language tab are longer pieces about some technical stuff I think may be useful. Some of them are derived from teaching notes and some are the product of insomnia. In any case, enjoy!*


* Enjoy! – a intransitive form of the verb used as an imperative: reminiscent of lost 16thC English usage, it was gifted back through an overlay on English of 18thC German and Yiddish grammar used by Jewish immigrants to, especially, 19thC New York. Just so you know.

Editing, language and writing