Mother tongue

What does the fashion for books about the state of the English language tell us? People care about their language because it forms part of their identity, and part of the resistance to changes in English is a resistance to change itself. But correct usage is not an elite affectation; it is a badge of competence
January 16, 2005

When you had finished reading your October Prospect, were you purple with rage? One contributor, writing about Gordon Brown, described him as an "heir apparent" who might find that someone else inherited after all. But an heir apparent must necessarily succeed; the term the writer should have used was "heir presumptive." A second contributor discussed why parliament is "like it is"; that should have been "as it is," or so we used to be taught at school. A third contributor wrote about the norms of something being "flaunted," when he meant "flouted." So it seems that even Britain's intelligent conversation is being conducted by people what haven't been learned to talk proper. Fetch me my green ink bottle: I have an article to write.

Why do people get so agitated about linguistic misuses and even about changes in the language? Is English in a bad state? Are things getting worse? These questions have been made topical by Lynne Truss's bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves and by the spate of books (and a television show) on similar themes by authors hoping to benefit from her success. The subject of John Humphrys's stocking-filler, Lost for Words, is indicated by its subtitle, The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language. Gobbledygook, by Don Watson, an Australian journalist, is a more serious piece of work; again, the subtitle explains its theme: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-speak are Strangling our Public Language. Vivian Cook's Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, produced by Profile, Truss's publisher (and mine), is somewhat different. The subtitle - Or Why Can't Anybody Spell? - may suggest that it is another "why oh why" book. In fact, it is a collection of linguistic facts and oddities assembled by a professor who loves words in both their spoken and written form. It is first-rate bedtime browsing and will surely find a place in many of Britain's most cultivated loos.

There is probably little mystery about Truss's success. She is a talented journalist, with a gift for the perky phrase; the book was skilfully packaged; and like other fads, it just caught on. Reviewers in this country seem to have been almost all favourable, but on the other side of the Atlantic the book received a withering dismissal from Louis Menand in the New Yorker. Menand is a very clever man, and hiring him to deal with Truss is like sending for Red Adair to put out the bonfire at the bottom of the garden. He began by observing that Truss's first punctuation mistake comes in her dedication and found many more errors and inconsistencies, as well as poor argument.

Some people have taken Truss seriously, but she herself, I think, does not. Her subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is mischievous, since in fact she sensibly takes a fairly relaxed view. Her long diatribe against misplaced apostrophes is a comic rant, to be enjoyed as such, and no more. The interesting issue is not the book itself but the public response to it. Reading these books and other articles, and listening to discussion on the broadcast media, I am struck by how widespread is the sense that we are being hoodwinked. "They" - politicians, academics, captains of industry, management consultants, bureaucrats - are misusing the English language as a way of deceiving us.

The idea that language can be manipulated to disguise the truth, and even to control and limit thought, is, of course, one of the themes of George Orwell's 1984. Orwell also explored the topic in his famous essay "Politics and the English language," written in 1946. He took five specimens of recent writing to illustrate "various of the mental vices from which we now suffer." The first is a clumsy and contorted sentence by Harold Laski containing so many double negatives that he seems to have ended up saying the opposite of what he meant to say. The second is from another once celebrated intellectual, Lancelot Hogben, whose vices are dying metaphor, pomposity and facetiousness ("we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables"). The third, from an American essay on psychology, is a typical piece of academic prose. The fourth is taken from a ranting communist pamphlet. The last is from a letter published in Tribune, in which rant, pomposity and facetiousness are majestically combined.

Orwell found certain faults common to all of these passages - ugliness, staleness of imagery and lack of precision: "The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing."

Has anything changed in the last 60 years? The most obvious difference is in political language. People still distrust the politicians - at a guess, they distrust them more now than they did then - but the rant that Orwell attacked now seems quaint and dated. For him, too much heat was the danger; now the enemies of clarity and honesty are euphemism, waffle and evasion. Perhaps the most depressing part of Orwell's essay, when we read it now, is his sample of academic writing, for prolix and obscure though it is, one's first reaction is to wonder what the fuss is about: it is so much better than a great deal of today's professorial prose. The public suspects that much academic production is fraudulent, and they are partly right. Since one of Orwell's targets was imprecision of thought, it is interesting to observe how frequently the word "precisely" is found in a certain type of academic prose, almost always used where "imprecisely" would be more accurate. You can diagnose weak thought from dead language as you can diagnose firedamp from a dead canary, and "precisely" is a dead adverb. It is an example of what Orwell called a meaningless word, an upmarket version of "literally," as in: "He literally wiped the floor with his opponent." In other terms, it is a bad faith word - a symptom of bluster, vagueness or vacuity.

In Orwell's fashion, Humphrys hauls in a couple of public intellectuals for questioning. Their offences are of unequal gravity. One is the sociologist Frank Furedi: the passages cited by Humphrys are indeed ineptly written, but at least Furedi is trying to say something serious. The other culprit is Susan Greenfield, in this case from a popular book. Here are the passages from Greenfield that Humphrys quotes:

"These doom-laden imaginings need a pinch of salt. Setting aside the obvious precaution of not volunteering for a brain implant, even if the opportunity for psychokinesis was too valuable to pass over the direct implanting of thoughts would still not necessarily be feasible."

"At last, at the turn of the century, IT has finally matured into adjectives such as 'cheap' and 'easy to use,' with the tsunami of applications and knock-on implications it has for our lives."

It may seem ghoulish to linger at the scene of these verbal pile-ups, but an accident investigation is called for. The first of these passages begins with an ugly mix of metaphors and proceeds to a sentence that is barely literate. "Setting" is a dangling participle (not easily interpreted, though one realises with a shudder that this part of the sentence is meant to be humorous); "was" should be "were," and a comma is needed after "over." In the clause beginning "even if," I suspect that the word "not" has dropped out after "too valuable," but the sentence is so inarticulate that it is hard to be sure.

How can an educated person write so badly? The second extract may supply the answer. The meaning towards which Greenfield is groping is probably this: "IT is now so cheap and easy to use that it is having a big effect on our lives." What on earth does "matured into adjectives such as" mean? Is she trying to say something about use of language? Probably not: the likelihood is that "has matured into adjectives such as" is Greenfieldian for "has become." "Tsunami" is pseudo-sophistication, a sort of gimcrack brightness, like those people who say "smorgasbord" for "variety." Insofar as the word makes any sense at all, that sense is wrong: the writer does not mean to say that the effect of home computers on our lives has been sudden, violent and destructive.

We might wonder why she has found it so difficult to say something so simple. But that surely is the answer: it is because the proposition is so simple that the expression is so muddled. If it had been put straightforwardly, we would have seen at once that it was hardly worth making. We all know that cheap computers have made a difference. But they have not made that much difference: "tsunami" is, among other things, a factitious attempt to create a bit of drama. One of the reasons that this is bad prose is that it is dishonest prose: in each of these passages the writer is trying to hide the fact that she has very little to say.

That was an extreme case; here is something much more ordinary. I read this the other day in an interview with a well-known figure, talking about industry: "You will never deliver a successful bottom line on a sustainable basis unless you have a vibrant organisational dynamic." I understand the first part of this; it means, "You will not make a profit." But what about the second part? It might mean, "unless your staff are happy in their jobs." Or it might mean something quite different: "unless your people argue vigorously with one another." Or it may be meant as a statement of the obvious: "unless your firm is well run." It is impossible to know. "Vibrant," by the way, is another of those bad faith words - a sure indicator of unconscious insincerity.

As it happens, the speaker of these words is an administrator of outstanding force and clarity, and he was merely using the common currency of our day. Some people talk like this of their own accord. When I praised my university's computer service to an eminent American scientist, he agreed that it was "a truly consumer-oriented facility." But there are also political pressures to make us talk like this. For instance, universities are now expected to produce mission statements. That ought to be easy: "We teach, study and write, and try to do these things as well as we can." But of course such plain, frank words will not do, and we are driven to swathe simple meaning in the language of bureaucracy. I am unsure why the language of management, Don Watson's main target, is so deplorable, but it is a serious matter, as it clogs the working of schools, hospitals and other public and private businesses.

In the academic world, it may be easier to detect the forces which discourage good, plain English. Modern societies have created large salaried intelligentsias, which are required to keep publishing. Some subject matter is essentially difficult: philosophy, for example, must often be done at a high level of abstraction. But the aim ought always to be to make difficult matters as simple as the subject allows, and the conditions of modern academic life tempt people to do the opposite. History is an almost limitless field, and my impression is that historians usually write well. But the study of popular culture easily tends to statement of the obvious, and its practitioners naturally want to disguise that fact. The English literature industry is so big that in many areas there is not enough material to go around, and here the temptation is to claim that even the most perspicuous authors need the professionals to interpret them. It is like the plumber telling you that it will cost a grand to fix that leaky tap.

As for politics, all governments reasonably stress their successes and palliate their failures, but many people seem to feel that the present government is more widely and systematically dishonest with fact and language than any of its predecessors. In my view, this suspicion is justified. To take a small example, Labour has for many years deliberately confused the important distinction between spending and investment by avoiding the former word: Gordon Brown would invest in a packet of Polo mints. Tony Blair himself is one of the two most interesting users of English in politics today. Humphrys refers to a couple of notorious habits: his tendency to change his accent to fit his audience, and his use of sentences without verbs when he wants to empty his language of determinate meaning. His 1999 conference speech on the "forces of conservatism" - incidentally, in its demonising of opponents and its aspiration to make the Labour party the political arm of the British people, perhaps the most fascistic speech ever made by a mainstream British politician - exploited the fact that in spoken English, "conservatism" and "Conservatism" are indistinguishable. In his most recent conference speech, he said, "I can apologise" (for the equivocations over Iraq), and the newspapers next morning reported both that he had apologised and that he had not. Perhaps that was too clever by half, but at least it enabled him to utter the cathartic word "apologise" (and to avoid the plain word "sorry" - apologies are what we send when we cannot attend a committee meeting). Later, in the House of Commons, he declared that he took responsibility for the security services. This sounded bold, but was actually a way of acknowledging formal responsibility while denying real responsibility. The long Latinate word "responsibility," like "apologise," was helpful. The five-letter words which would have got to the heart of the matter were "sorry," "fault" and "blame."

The use of smear and sneer words to block open-minded thought has declined since Orwell's time (except for "racist" and perhaps the pejorative use of "politically correct"). But in other respects the situation is no better, and in many ways worse. Much of the current fuss over language, however, is about something different from Orwell's concern, although it is related. Take the examples in my very first paragraph. In none of these cases is the meaning in any doubt; if they are objectionable, it is for other reasons. There is a feeling around which might express itself like this: "Everything's going to the dogs. They aren't taught grammar in schools, they can't spell… and don't you hate the way people say 'ballpark figure' and 'at this moment in time.'"

People care about their language because it forms part of their identity. Consider Blair's chameleon shifts of accent. Mass immigration has reminded us about the importance of accent: a person who talks with a native accent is "one of us," whatever his skin colour, while a person with a foreign accent, however well respected, remains a foreigner. On the whole, this is good news, for it suggests that shared habits of speech can help a diverse society to hold together. People's sense of local and national identity is often based on things that were familiar when they were young: policemen in tall helmets, Routemaster buses, roast beef for Sunday lunch. People feel like that about language, and part of the resistance to changes in English is a resistance to change itself. It is also significant that, as Humphrys notes, Americanisms are especially resented. Once the change is complete, however, no one notices. Who now sympathises with the don who, on being told by a visitor that he wanted to contact her, replied: "I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb 'To contact' has not."?

One of the examples in my first paragraph represents language in transition. The use of "like" as a conjunction is now general even in educated speech, and it may soon become accepted in written English too. It grates on me, but it may not grate on the next generation. In the case of manifest language errors, the rule should be simple: resist as long as you can, but once the battle is lost, surrender. It is still worth trying to keep "media" and "data" as plural words, but it would be silly to say, "Her stamina are remarkable."

One of the lessons of books like Lost for Words is that everyone has his own bête noire (one of mine is bête noir; one of Orwell's was the use of pretentious foreign phrases). One of Humphrys's is the plural in, for example, "the caller withheld their number." "Aargh!" he says (not all his comments are very sophisticated). But "their" is what we have always said in ordinary speech. True, we used to be taught to avoid this in writing, but if people think that so-called inclusive language is important, it is surely better than the ugly and obtrusive "his or her." Humphrys also hates redundancies like "safe haven" and "future prospect," but although these are faults, they are pretty minor ones. What would he make of Webster?

I am acquainted with sad misery
As the tanned galley-slave is with his oar.

No doubt something lingers here of the original meaning of "sad," which was "persistent," but the dull repetition in "sad misery" movingly expresses the monotonous continuance of the Duchess of Malfi's sorrows. In our ordinary discourse, a little redundancy may help to make meaning clear.

Nor should we be automatically hostile to padding, as both Orwell and Humphrys are. In the 16th century, Cranmer gave the liturgy rhythm and dignity, in a language much less polysyllabic than Latin, by repetitions, often yoking together an Anglo-Saxon and a classically derived word: "Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain… perfect remission and forgiveness." Clichés such as "at the end of the day" and "at this moment in time" have become trite with use, but in origin they were virtuous: they grow out of an instinct to give language shape and flow.

There are several misunderstandings about cliché. There are clichés of thought; I used one in my first paragraph, when I referred to the myth that angry letters to the press are written in green ink. These are like family jokes; they are part of the national conversation, and are not to be regretted. Some clichés are modestly useful, like "tip of the iceberg." Many are metaphors, and of these, some are plain bad, while others were once fresh but have become stale with time, such as "sick as a parrot." But "over the moon," though now horribly hackneyed, was once rather a charming phrase, with a pleasing touch of the surreal; and there was, I suppose, an allusion to the cow jumping over the moon in the nursery rhyme.

The nature of grammar, too, is often misunderstood. When Ernie Wise talked about "the play what I wrote," he was using a grammar, but it was not the grammar of educated English. No native English-speaker would say "the play whom I wrote," a mistake which a foreigner learning the language might well make. That would indeed be contrary to English grammar. Another fact which often confuses people is that grammars include irregularities. Humphrys frets over the form "aren't I," before coming to the sensible conclusion that it is all right. But there was never a problem to start with. "Aren't I" is the correct form in modern English; it is simply an irregularity.

We need to distinguish ugly language from ungrammatical language: plenty of language is ugly but grammatically correct. And we also need to distinguish between the grammar of informal speech ("aren't I"), non-standard grammar ("what I wrote"), and incorrect grammar ("whom I wrote"). There is a story of a German spy who was caught because his English was "too correct." If he was caught because the natives' speech was muddled and slovenly, he was unlucky; but if he was speaking like a book, he deserved his capture. Spoken English is different from written English - a point which Humphrys makes well - and the foreigner who has not learned this has not fully mastered the language.

Some people stress the importance of grammar, in the sense of educated speech and writing; others, in reaction, deny that it matters, and may even claim that it is an elite conspiracy to keep the proles in their place. A similar reaction insists that the English language is in good health, and that there is no need to be concerned about it. This was the claim made by Jean Aitchison at the time of her Reith lectures in 1996, but she seemed to have no criteria for distinguishing good language from bad. It is certainly wrong to suppose that languages cannot improve or deteriorate, or to deny that different languages have particular strengths and weaknesses. Among the disadvantages of English, for example, are the comparatively inflexible word order, the use of "s" both for the genitive case and for the plural and a general excess of sibilance, the inability to distinguish the singular and plural of the second person, and the awkwardness of having to use "it" for what the French distinguish as il and ce. The strength of English is the variety of its registers. The base of our language is Germanic, but it has been overlaid in three stages by words of Latin derivation: those that arrived in Anglo-Saxon times, those that came from French after 1066, and the abstract vocabulary that entered from the Renaissance onwards. We have cases of two words derived from the same Latin original, such as "frail" and "fragile," or "ransom" and "redemption." Good prose can exploit this range of register. We can use short, plain words or sesquipedalian polysyllables; we may want to use both.

We should learn educated English, as we should learn to spell, if only because it is a certificate of competence. Mistakes like "should of" or "flaunt" for "flout" are literally childish: they are the result of people picking up language by imitation, as children do, and misunderstanding what they have heard. We should flaunt the rules of grammar, not flout them, if only to show that we know what we are up to. But there is a nobler reason for knowing the rules, and that is that it enables one to speak more variously and effectively. Language does more than inform: there are occasions when it should be sonorous, poetic, dignified or inspiring; and at times it needs to be blunt and coarse. I said earlier that Tony Blair was one of the two most interesting users of English in present politics; the other is Chris Patten. He speaks and writes with force and elegance; he quoted Shakespeare after losing his seat, but he also understands the value of a drop into the demotic ("gobsmacked"). You cannot drop into the demotic, however, unless you have a height to drop from.

Patten's case may suggest that there is a practical advantage to good English. Hardly anyone knows whether he did a good job or not in Brussels, but he has acquired the reputation of a wise statesman, and that surely owes much to his way with words. On the other hand, Blair has been immensely successful in electoral politics, and Patten has not, so maybe the price of good language is respect without power. But there are grounds for being cautiously hopeful. I suspect that behind the fuss about grammar, spelling and cliché there lies a larger uneasiness. The feeling is abroad that government and society are hostile to high culture, or at least uneasy with it; that anything demanding has to be simplified or smoothed out ("accessibility" is the weasel word here); that no serious matter can now be treated seriously, the malaise summed up in the phrase "dumbing down."

Humphrys's heart is in the right place, but his book, alas, is itself an example of dumbing down, for it is written in a relentlessly chirpy, folksy prose, as though he were trying to jolly along a class of 14 year olds suffering from attention deficit. Popularisation need not and should not be patronising. Think of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation: Clark was superbly patrician, but the reverse of patronising, for he treated us as people who would want to hear a serious argument, elegantly made. Civilisation was popular, and something of the same kind could be popular again now, for there is in the land a hunger to be more serious. The hungry sheep look up, and it is time for them to be fed; why, there might even be money in it.