Does it matter if we split infinitives or fuse participles? Campaigners for "correct" English think that it doesby Simon Heffer, Oliver Kamm / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Simon Heffer: There is such a thing as correct English. It is the standard form of communication used when one English speaker or writer wishes to ensure that he or she is not misunderstood by another. It is the English from which all other dialects and patois are derived. It is codified in English grammars. The Oxford English Dictionary has, since its completion in 1928, defined the meanings of words. Words have changed their meaning throughout history, and new words are regularly minted to describe new objects, ideas or functions: these are found in the supplements to, and the new edition of, the dictionary.
Correct English is used by the newspapers for which you and I write. If you were to take a laissez-faire approach to English in your leading articles a sub-editor would change them. This is because even if you don’t believe there is such a thing as correct English, the people who shape the style of your newspaper—and of most other printed journals—do. And they believe it because your readers, my readers and radio and television audiences all believe there is something called “correct English.”
My purpose in writing two books about correct usage was to prevent people who have not been blessed by the education that you and I enjoyed from being judged in our class-ridden society as inadequates, in the way they would be in France. Because a common understanding of what constitutes correct English does exist, those who use it incorrectly may put themselves at a disadvantage—such as when writing job applications, or in an interview. You may lament that there is such a common understanding, but standard or correct English exists whether you like it or not, and we just have to put up with it. And so long as it is there, I want to try to teach everyone to use it. One can level up just as effectively as one can level down.
Oliver Kamm: English grammar has rules. Lots of them. By this, I mean real rules—things like word order and inflection for number or tense—that fluent English speakers never get wrong (when was the last time you forgot the irregular plural of “tooth”?).
My criticism of those who campaign for “correct” English is that they never talk about rules in this sense. Instead they obsess about things that are either trivial or not real rules of grammar at all, such as the bogus prohibitions on fused participles—“I heard you crying” rather than “I heard your crying”—or split infinitives—“to boldly go” rather than “to go boldly.”
We agree on one thing. It’s vital that children (and adults) be able to communicate fluently in Standard English. But you make the illegitimate further argument that “Standard English” is “correct English.” That is a mistake.
Standard English is the most recognisable variant of the language. That is its merit: utility, not correctness. It’s more useful to know Standard English in Britain and around the world than it is to know any non-standard form of the language. But that’s like saying it’s more useful to know English than it is to know Welsh or Danish. There is no sense in which English is “correct” and Welsh is “wrong”: they’re different languages with different grammars, and one of them has many more speakers worldwide than the other.
Standard English isn’t just another dialect, but it is a dialect even so. It is the dialect that got lucky: the variant of English that emerged in and around London and that was associated with wealth and power. It has become a global language not through any inherent virtue but because of the influence of, successively, the British empire and the United States (whose variant of Standard English is neither more nor less “correct” than the dialect that you and I use).
Standard English and non-standard varieties all have complex grammatical structures. Language teaching should enable schoolchildren to learn where these differ, and to communicate in the form and register that are most appropriate to their audience. On the whole, this is being done well in schools. It won’t help to instruct a new generation (or anxious adults) in shibboleths that are not and never have been part of the grammar of Standard English. Grammar is so much more interesting than that.
SH: You dispute that Standard English is correct English. I disagree. Custom and practice have made it so. This is not something any individual or law can dictate, but it has come about by an intelligent consensus. I do not claim this is either a good thing or a bad thing, but is how things are.
I don’t think it’s trivial to use one word by mistake for another when the two words have utterly different meanings. I think it’s plain wrong and suggests laziness and lack of thought on the part of the speaker or writer. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to be considered lazy or deficient in their thought processes—or even stupid—which is why I am keen for their sakes that they should not do it. And a step towards encouraging them to take sufficient care and so not make such mistakes is to point out that they are not, in fact, trivial. Sometimes, a life can hinge on interpretations of words. Derek Bentley might now be enjoying a serene old age if the jury in his trial had not believed his unfortunate phrase “let him have it” to be a slang usage—“shoot the policeman”—rather than the literal “let him have the gun.” Precision is vital.
As for split infinitives and fused participles: both are in my view a matter of style. I have yet to have an incontrovertible case put to me that “to boldly go” is any more effective than “to go boldly”; and I through preference would always prefer “Oliver’s being an anarchist was amusing” to “Oliver being an anarchist was amusing,” because I think the former both clearer and more elegant. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I should never want a French-style academy that stopped people such as you advocating flouting the rules.
OK: I’m glad you agree that split infinitives and fused participles are matters of stylistic preference rather than rules of grammar. Even so sensitive a prescriptive grammarian as Henry Watson Fowler would not have agreed with you on the second point, so I pay tribute to your permissive instincts. I’m surprised that you think “to go boldly” is as rhetorically effective as “to boldly go,” as it seems to me that the latter construction (with weak and strong syllables alternating) conforms with the demands of prosody, but I’m not going to complain if you prefer it.
There is, however, a crucial point that remains between us. On my reading, you are running together two issues that are distinct. They concern “correctness.”
Of course it is possible to make errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation in English. It’s possible for me, for you and for our respective newspapers to do this. For example, subject-verb agreement is a real grammatical rule in Standard English (though the rule needs to be applied with an eye to sense as well as syntax: a construction like “a number of newspaper columnists are mistaken” is grammatical, following the principle of notional concord, even though “number” is singular).
It is not possible, however, for all or most users of Standard English to be wrong on the same issue of language at the same time. If it’s used (not just by you or by me, or by the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker, but by everyone), it’s part of the language.
My objection is not to the notion of rules of grammar but to your designation of non-standard dialects as “incorrect” simply because they are not Standard English. That doesn’t follow.
The task for language teachers and (on a less elevated level) usage pundits like us is not to damn non-standard dialects and constructions as “incorrect.” It is to educate children (and adults) in when these are appropriate and when they are not.
SH: I am permissive about language to a greater extent than you might expect. I am well aware of the distinction between the demotic and the formal. Even I don’t telephone someone—or as Graham Greene would have said until about 1945, telephone to someone—and announce “it is I.” And so of course it is valuable to teach people when a non-standard construction will suffice and when it will not. However, I worry that not everyone is capable of registering that distinction: and the less well-educated people are, the less they are likely to be able to do so.
And this brings me back to my fundamental point. If you don’t do as the French (for example) do, and insist that there is a standard and that it is regarded as correct (and I would prefer the idea of correctness to come about by consensus rather than by the tyranny of an academy) you risk encouraging people to harm themselves.
I understand that there are perfectly good reasons why the meanings of words change, or expand in their range—take, in the last 20 years, the verb surf, for example—and grammar has changed through the centuries to create more precision and to reduce ambiguity. However, there remains a problem of perception of people whose grammar is sloppy because they have not been made to attune their minds to it, or who use words wrongly. It has to be helpful to those who are being educated to be given a clear idea of what is correct in the first place. And I don’t really accept that Standard English is simply a dialect: it is the mothership around which all the satellites of dialect have their orbits.
OK: As political columnists, we’re prey to the delusion that our own opinions are common sense as opposed to the wild notions of our opponents. I suspect this is how you see our respective positions on language too: your advice (including such things, argued in your book, as that seaside hats should say “kiss me quickly”) is moderate whereas mine is extreme.
If so, that’s mistaken. Our dispute is not about degrees of permissiveness but about “correctness.” What’s correct usage? It’s whatever is in general use (not any use, but general use). Take inflection for case. You may castigate a phrase like “between you and I” yet it violates no grammatical rule and has been in the language for centuries (it was used by Shakespeare). We work out the rules for the case of conjoined pronouns by examining the record of usage. Similar reasoning tells us that a construction like “would of” (recorded in the OED from 1837) is a phonetic confusion for “would’ve” rather than being part of the grammar of Standard English. How can we pundits tell right from wrong and convey the distinction? We consult the definitions and notes of the authorities on language, namely the grammars and the dictionaries. Their compilers, in turn, get the answers from users of the language.
That’s the only serious answer available. You raise the bogey of the “tyranny of the academy” if we trust that native speakers do in fact already know their own language. I find this laughable rather than ominous because I know that, if there were an English equivalent to the Académie française, its edicts would be ignored. Quite right, too.