John Humphrys: Lost for words

The broadcaster details the abuses which have driven him to write a book about the growing misuse of the English language
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The Independent Culture

All broadcasters have nightmares. When I was a television news presenter mine usually involved getting lost on the way to the studio, having no time to check the autocue and discovering, as I tried to read the headlines, that everything was complete gibberish.

All broadcasters have nightmares. When I was a television news presenter mine usually involved getting lost on the way to the studio, having no time to check the autocue and discovering, as I tried to read the headlines, that everything was complete gibberish.

In a nightmare about the Today programme, I start an interview with a tough cabinet minister - John Reid or Gordon Brown perhaps - and realise I have no idea at all what to ask them. And then, when they answer whatever inane question I've managed to stammer out, I have not the first idea what they're talking about. Please do not tell me that this is not my overheated imagination and you have heard many interviews like that. I am in a fragile state right now because I have just written a book about the English language and I fear a new nightmare.

The problem is everyone has a different idea of what constitutes good English. Some people are perfectly happy so long as the rules of grammar (whichever set of rules they choose) have been strictly observed. I know I have broken many in the book and I know I shall pay a price for it. I shall become a target for every pedant in the land and there is no point in whining about it. If you enter this minefield you must expect to lose a limb or two. So let me get my justification in first.

People who say every rule should be observed meticulously do not know what they are talking about. And if you don't believe me, try "correcting" that sentence to end: "... don't know about what they're talking". Hideous eh?

So it is not always wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. My favourite illustration of that is the tale of the gauche young man from rural Mississippi who won a scholarship to Harvard. On his first day there he approached a couple of cocky young New England socialites. "Hey y'all... where's the library at?" One of them replied haughtily: "At Harvard we prefer not to end a sentence with a preposition." The young redneck thought a moment and said: "OK. Where's the library at, asshole?"

Nor can I see any reason why sentences should never begin with conjunctions. And that's why I do it so often.

There are some things I never do. I hate split infinitives: not because the rule against them makes any great sense but because they jar on me.

Slavish adherence to rules is one thing. Teaching children the basics of grammar is quite another. We stopped doing it when I was a teenager and that was stupid. You would weep at some of the letters I have received from teachers (some of whom admit to being barely literate when they leave training college) and professors who have to mark the papers of undergraduates.

I know of one professor who was in the habit of deducting marks for poor grammar or clumsy sentences that failed to express the ideas clearly. He would scribble in the margins to tell the candidate what he had done and why. He no longer does that. He is afraid that if his marking is challenged and an appeal conducted, he will be held to have been discriminatory. This is not only silly on a Herculean scale, it is deeply depressing. Another said when he once underlined some spelling errors in a student's essay the student replied: "What are you? Some sort of spelling fascist?"

If you want to play football for Arsenal you need to be able to kick a ball. If you want to aspire to any sort of academic achievement you need to be able to express yourself clearly. Or am I missing something here? How can you assess the quality of someone's mind if they cannot tell you what they know and how they think?

Let us kill off for once and for all the conspiracy theory - developed by liberal educationists in the Sixties - that the teaching of English was controlled by the ruling class and we, the lumpen proletariat, were victims of class oppression. The way to win our freedom, they said, was to refuse the straitjacket of rules and express ourselves as we chose. It was tosh then and it is tosh today.

If we were indeed being oppressed, the liberals should have realised that the way to overcome our oppressor was to use his own weapon against him: good English. Rules do not confine; they liberate.

But that's only part of the story. Sentences can be perfectly grammatical and deeply boring. They can also be meaningless. Our language is showing signs of obesity, which is the consequence of feeding on junk words. Tautology is the equivalent of having chips with rice.

We talk of future plans and past history; of live survivors and safe havens. Children have temper tantrums and politicians announce "new initiatives" - though maybe that is to distinguish them from the many "initiatives" that are recycled versions of failed old ones. We say "from whence" and "he is currently the chairman..."

Why "currently"? What does "is" mean if not "currently"? I am offered news headlines reporting "the planned talks have been cancelled." How could they be cancelled if they had not been "planned"? Or perhaps they were not cancelled and are "still continuing". Why "still"? One of the BBC's published objectives for 2005 is to "enhance further the impact" of its global news services. I know how you enhance; I am damned if I know how you "enhance further".

You see signs along the road informing you of "delays due to an earlier accident", as though they could be due to a later one. Traffic warnings on the radio tell you roadworks are "still continuing", probably adding that they do so "at this moment in time", as though a moment could be in anything else.

Some of the obesity comes from our relatively recent tendency to sprinkle prepositions where they should not be. We attach them to verbs which are self-sufficient. We "test out", "raise up", "descend down", "revert back", "separate out", "free up", "enter in", "divide up", "exit out" and "feed into". It is not only estate agents who insist that a house "comprises of" three bedrooms. We write "all of" when we need no more than "all" and we even double up prepositions to be on the safe side. Things are "opposite to" (which compounds the felony), "up against", "off of" and "up until". And can anyone remember when we met people instead of "meeting up with"?

Then again, maybe I should chill out - or possibly just "chill".

Euphemism is another enemy of good, simple language. People who bought houses on a new development in Weston-super-Mare last year had terrible problems: uneven floors; dangerous wiring; windows and roof tiles that did not fit. In one case the entire front of a house had to be removed because the brickwork was so shoddy. When the builders finally got around to apologising this was how they put it: "We were aware of the build quality issues ...."

Here is a company building houses that make the buyers' lives a misery and they still cannot bring themselves to use that simple word, "problems". Instead there are "build quality issues".

The motivation for euphemism is usually pretty clear. "Slaughterhouse" gave way to "abattoir" because the sound of the French word has none of the savagery of "slaughter", with its reminder of what happened to the sweet little lamb that has ended up as chops on the butcher's shelf.

I guarantee that "butcher" will be the next to go. No doubt when all our local butchers have been driven out of business the supermarkets will find a cosier word for their rows of chill cabinets masquerading as a butcher's shop.

Our grandchildren will never see blood dripping from a butchered joint on a slab and they will be encouraged to think all meat comes naturally wrapped in cellophane. Did I say "meat"? Try "protein packs", maybe.

You can also see why "abortion" has almost given way to "termination". You terminate a pregnancy - which is a state or a condition. You abort a foetus - which is a human being.

Bernard Levin believed all euphemisms are lies. He admired the writer Marghanita Laski, who translated "simple, inexpensive gowns for the fuller figure" into "nasty, cheap dresses for fat old women".

I spoke on Today to a man from Scottish and Southern Energy about what his company was doing to the countryside and he resolutely refused to use the word "pylon". Instead, he banged on about "electrical transmission infrastructure". You can hear the PR consultant briefing him: "On no account use the word "pylon". It gives us problems." Not that he would have used the word "problems". It's "challenges" these days.

A businessman peddling an ambitious project for which he was trying to raise a lot of money exaggerated its the potential earning power. When, some years later, he was tackled about it and asked if he had been dishonest. "No," he said, "I was telling future truths." I leave it to you to judge whether he was, in the euphemistic language of another of my interviewees "ethically challenged".

Euphemism has, I suppose, always been with us but what seems new today is the number of new words and phrases that add nothing to the language and simply sound pretentious: words such as "infotainment" and "infomediary"; phrases such as "paradigm shift" and "step-change". Business is mostly to blame - especially the so-called business gurus who come up with a new theory (and a new vocabulary) every five minutes. We have them to thank for needing to be proactive and think outside the box while we play hardball, simultaneously applying best practice to pluck the low hanging fruit and deliver client-focused solutions that give us win-win, result-driven, value-added bottom lines. But none of that will happen if we are out of the loop and fail to exploit synergies while touching base going forward.

The truly awful thing about this garbage is that half the people who use it do not have a clue what it means. So what chance do the rest of us stand?

But I am a journalist - which is why stones and glass houses come to mind. In our world, feelings always run high; doubts are always nagging; warnings (and reminders) are always stark and reality never less than grim. We write of inanimate objects suffering damage and people dying tragically - as opposed to gleefully, I suppose.

George Orwell once called this sort of stuff "silly words and expressions" and confidently forecast that such expressions as "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned" would soon disappear. That was 50 years ago. Which just goes to show that even a genius can get it wrong when it comes to the use of English. And that makes me feel a little better.

HIS BUG-BEARS:

Outwith: When did we start with this one and what does it mean?

Going forward: Always used in a future sense so it could hardly be "going backwards"

Paradigm shift: As against a non-paradigm shift maybe?

Step change: Meaningless

Set to: If we mean "going to" then why don't we just say so?

Long-awaited: Usually for government reports: aren't they always?

Meet up with: Like, I'm sooo not cool about this one

Axe/quit/blow/probe: Headline words that should never be used anywhere else

Invest: Used by politicians when they mean 'spend'

Resources: Ditto when they mean money - our money

HIS HEROES:

Marghanita Laski, who translated "simple, inexpensive gowns for the fuller figure" into "nasty, cheap dresses for fat old women"

George Orwell who confidently forecast that expressions such as "explore every avenue" and "leave no stone unturned" would soon disappear

Lost for Words: the Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language by John Humphrys is published by Hodder & Stoughton and on sale from today, price £14.99.

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