Has you done awfill English?

BBC: Why all English speakers worry about slipping up

The English language is confusing, inconsistent and easy to muddle. But some pour too much scorn on those who break the rules, writes James Harbeck.

Since Jonathan Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, two centuries of self-appointed correctors and improvers of English usage – such as Robert Lowth, HW Fowler, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss, and Neville Gwynne – have decried the decadent state of our language and instructed people on how to use it better.

But what have they accomplished?

They have helped enforce agreement that there should be a standard version of the language. They have not, however, managed to set the exact details of that standard.

And the stream of the language has flowed on despite the damning practices prescribed by grammar doctors in the 1700s and 1800s that often look old-fashioned or bizarre now…

The language cannot be fixed in place, and its constant evolution does not always follow the tastes of its self-appointed guardians. Some of their proposed improvements have had inglorious careers: a rule – don’t split infinitives, don’t end sentences with prepositions, don’t start sentences with conjunctions – is decided in defiance of established usage. It is promulgated in books, taught in schools, and often used as an indicator of a writer’s level of education, yet it continues to be broken – productively by some (including many of the best writers), sloppily by others, guiltily by many.

One important effect the English-improvers have had, however, is on how people feel and talk about English usage. They have taught generations of English speakers that ‘bad English’ is a failure of intellectual and moral fibre.

Jonathan Swift, in 1712, talked of “Corruptions,” “Licentiousness,” and “barren” usages; Robert Lowth, in 1799, applied terms such as “perverted” and “barbarous”; Richard Grant White, in 1872, used phrases such as “utterly abominable”, “foolish and intolerable”, and said they showed “utter want of education and a low grade of intelligence” (and these against words such as donate, jeopardise, and preventative).

HW Fowler in 1908 spoke of “barbaric” usages, and the “special ugliness” that comes from a word with a “mongrel origin”, and counselled readers that “The effect of using quotation marks with slang is merely to convert a mental into a moral weakness.” George Orwell in 1946 inveighed against “slovenliness” and “sheer incompetence.”

In more recent years, writers guilty of some well-established word choices and writing habits have been called “slovenly” by Kingsley Amis; “abominable,” and “semi-literates” by Simon Heffer; “illiterate” by Neville Gwynne; and “moral weaklings” by Lynne Truss.

What these umpires of the English language have enabled and abetted is scorn based purely on details of the language itself rather than on extrinsic social differences.

There is a classism in it, but their ideal is not a nobleman (they often criticise errors in the speech of the high and mighty) but a person of careful, vigorous thought, moral propriety, manly directness, and the right sort of education, as evinced unfailingly by avoidance of specified vulgarisms and barbarisms.

They despise stupidity and low character, but they enfranchise their pupils to identify these not by the content of what is said but by a few simplistic rules of form: a belt of scorn grenades.

The English language can be confusing. Thanks to its history, its spelling is capriciously inconsistent; thanks to the vast body of literature that has grown over the centuries of its evolution, its variations of form are manifest.

To be an English speaker is unavoidably to have some degree of what William Labov called ‘linguistic insecurity’. People whose English is farther from the promoted ideal are more insecure, but you will not find an English speaker who does not at least occasionally fret about whether he or she is committing an error.

It’s not so surprising that people over the centuries have wanted to tidy it all up. But attempts at improvement have not been unequivocally successful, to say the least, and the tone in which they have been presented has done further injury.

It’s bad enough that we have to worry about being clear and consistent; thanks to the weaponisation of English grammar and vocabulary, we also have to worry about being seen as degenerate barbarian imbeciles.

The English language is confusing, infuriating and a marvellous  way to communicate expressively.

The evolution of English is fascinating, as are the efforts of some to stop it’s evolution in it’s tracks. What no one has been able to do is stop the expansion and diversification of English in it’s written tracks.

Like English ethnicity the language is a hodge podge of immigrant languages used in a wide variety of ways.

Writing clearly is important, but it depends on who your audience is as to what is clear and what is acceptable.

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24 Comments

  1. Gezza

     /  13th March 2017

    What no one has also been able to do is to make it clear to everyone that the only time an apostrophe should appear in “it’s” is when it’s a contraction of it is. So (and given my recent – since I got the FiP – history of absolutely appalling proof-reading) I won’t even bother trying. 😃

    • Are you sure about English and it’s apostrophe rules?

      • Gezza

         /  13th March 2017

        Absolutely, on “it’s”.

        I can only assume Kitty has been too polite or too scared to mention it to you.

        • Gezza

           /  13th March 2017

          The possessive pronouns are hers, his, theirs and its.

          • Gezza

             /  13th March 2017

            Well, “their”, but no doubt Kitty can explain the difference between their & theirs, I forget. Mum was a teacher so some stuff I just never forget.

          • Blazer

             /  13th March 2017

            what about ‘my’?

            • Gezza

               /  13th March 2017

              Good man. I thought I might have forgotten one but I forgot “our” too. Mind you, Nobody’s perfect, and I am rather sleepy. Back’s getting better though. Should end up with a level towel rail by nighfall at this rate.

        • Its one of the rules I never committed to memory and used another rule to corrupt my thinking.

          (I know the above Its should be It’s but just wanted to be rebellious).

          • Gezza

             /  13th March 2017

            It’s one of the easiest rules to remember because there’s only one usage with an apostrophe that’s correct. Are you sure you’re not just exercising a wee editorially subversive streak 😃❓

            • Gezza

               /  13th March 2017

              Anyway, I’m off for a nana nap. My sleep pattern’s got all up the boohai doing man projects at all hours like a mad blighter over the last 10 days & I woke up at 4 am & ended up victimising PZ after I read more of his comments yesterday to pass the time until I got sleepy again, which is now. 😴 💤

            • But you have to know that wee rule overules other more general rules.

              Misuse may annoy some people but it’s hardly the biggest crime against English.

            • Pickled Possum

               /  13th March 2017

              Morena Gez 🙂 Glad to say; I shoot from the hip, its an it’s from me, if I remember. As you may have guessed, I was getting me beauty sleep whilst in english class All my mates were listening with bated breathe.

              Glad to see you back bro, this place kinda loses it shine a bit when you not hear. But Miss Al and you know who’s were keeping it going struggling under the weight of ‘got not much humour ‘ all serious as.

              Butt I am going to make a concentrated effort to baffle you with BS or more commonly called Understanding the English Language.

            • Gezza

               /  13th March 2017

              Continually repeated infringements might be up there. Even Trump (or his minders) know not to do this one.

              But ok, I agree, the odd instance here & there is not the worst crime against English. Just out of interest, do you happen to know what is – or is this an enquiry more approriateky directed to someone with, say, an MA (Hons) in English Literature, do you think?

              There’ll be no point asking Wayne.

            • Gezza

               /  13th March 2017

              Cheers possers. Sometimes I think only c understands me, and that’s a worry in itself.

            • Pickled Possum

               /  13th March 2017

              wah wah (got ya snivelling little pamby voice going on eh) jj and nnr

              I understand; I hear you butt just don’t have the CT training you had as a child to do this its and it’s saga. I must admit I am green of your easy to understand … just like ya talking to me … way.
              I will get over it and its ok imho if I make a FU sometimes cos you should be able to understand me sometimes, to get the jist of what I mean.

              Ps Love George Orwells work easy to understand and how he uses the english language is pretty bloody good all right.

              Gotta say that Richard Grant White said, “in 1872, used phrases
              such as “utterly abominable”, “foolish and intolerable”, and said
              they showed “utter want of education and a low grade of intelligence”

              Sounds like a right royal real stuck up pratt-idiot.
              Makes how maori mis-understood te tiriti possible eh
              didn’t know what the heck they were seeing or hearing.

              Conspiratoor gotta a way with the words like his ‘bro’ corky and our resident user of big words Parti. Miss, well she is purrfect in all ways,
              of course its the english language I’m talking about.
              Als minimum use of words to make his opinion know was sometimes
              hard to fathom but I’m on to him now.
              Just gotta find out what ‘sex therapist’ actually means 😉
              All in all I am taking notice of the many well written easy to grasp comments written here.

              and if you understand that then you have an understanding different from maureen who just can’t see what lies behind the words.
              Scroll button is usually best I rekcon. 😉

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  13th March 2017

      Nobody can spell separate, G. They also don’t know that prepositions govern the accusative. But since they mostly communicate in abbreviations and acronyms it’s starting to matter less and less.

  2. Corky

     /  13th March 2017

    Er, Kitty. You weading dis?

  3. Nelly Smickers

     /  13th March 2017

    Whenever I’m on night-shift, there’s often a few quiet times where I get the chance to listen to talk back. As soon as a caller raises the subject of *English pronunciation*, I immediately change the station….what you know is that it’s going to mean hours of being *bored out of your bloody tree* o_O

    • Gezza

       /  13th March 2017

      Tbh I thought you’d have been listening to Vivaldi.

      • Nelly Smickers

         /  13th March 2017

        He’s sooo *boring* as well…….all he ever does is instrumentals o_O

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  13th March 2017

      On the other hand, Nelly, there are a lot of “English” speakers on telly that I have no idea what they are gurgling and grunting about. So that is quite boring too.

  4. Kevin

     /  13th March 2017

    All rules of grammar are there for one purpose; so that what we write can be clearly understood.

    By the way the use of “;” here is generally regarded as “showing off” and used simply to show that the writer has gone to university. I could have used a dash which would have better and less showy-offy. 🙂

    • Pickled Possum

       /  13th March 2017

      WTfip Kev Really!! I was just getting into “” talk marks and ; semi colon,
      stronger than a comma and not as final as a period.

      I don’t want to be seen as a “degenerate barbarian imbecile” ;-(
      I don’t want to show off either; whats the point!
      no-one would be impressed… would they?

      … 3 dots ellipsis Meaning, “My crazy life”, each dot representing one of the following: Hospital, Prison, or Death.
      Meaning your crazy life will end you up in one of those 3 places.
      Usually Gang Related.
      or indicates an intentional omission of a word, sentence,
      or whole section from a text without …
      See what I mean; confusing.
      Really, if you need punctuation to understand clearly that which is written … Weeelllll

      • Gezza

         /  13th March 2017

        Well it’s no worse that using a freaking macron when a double ‘a’ would do the job or a ‘wh’ when an ‘f ‘ is how it’s now pronounced, confusing the hell out of those who think ‘f’ and ‘ph’ covers the territory adequately 😳.