When you’re campaigning for the status quo, it’s hard to muster the passion of someone who’s telling you that something must be doneby Sam Leith / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
It may not have been “the Sun wot won it,” when it came to the Brexit vote. But could it have been grammar? That is, at least in part, the argument of The Language of Brexit, an enlightening new book by the academic linguist Steve Buckledee. He has been riffling through the propaganda on both sides of the referendum debate since early 2016 to unpick the linguistic habits of both sides; and plunges back into the language of our relationship with Europe since the 1970s.
Here’s a f’rinstance. We were told, here and there, before the vote, that referenda tend to favour the status quo. After the result, of course, pundits performed the manoeuvre known in the days of Kelvin McKenzie’s Sun as the “reverse ferret.” Emphasis was placed on the way in which, when you’re campaigning for the status quo, it’s hard to muster the passion of someone who’s telling you that something must be done. “Stay put!” doesn’t have quite the oomph of “Charge!”
In other words, “Remain” campaigners have been charged with being half-hearted (and as in Jeremy Corbyn’s case, probably were). In attempting to appear honest about the EU’s shortcomings they went halfway to making their opponents’ cases for them.
Buckledee argues that this manifested itself in sentence-structure. Many prominent pro-“Remain” proclamations took the form: “The EU is faulty, but we’re better off in.” That is a co-ordinative construction. Compare the subordinating: “We’re better off in, even though the EU is faulty,” or “Even though the EU is faulty, we’re better off in.” In the second examples, our reservations are grammatically secondary to the mandate to stay: “we’re better off in” is the main clause.
Questions of grammar were central to the way the arguments were presented. Among them is our old friend “epistemic modality.” That’s the term given to those verbs that, as it were, shade a sentence with implications as to the authority of the information in it.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda—or did? May, might, could—or can and will? When you say “Leaving the EU could cost us billions in trade,” you’re admitting at the level of grammar that your prediction is speculative. If you say “Leaving the EU will free us to make trade agreements all over the world”…