I'm bored of pedantic grammarians

How often does it need to be said? Language doesn't get worse or better; it just changes

OH GOD, I thought, not this one again. The publishers of the new Collins Dictionary of English have been trying to whip up a bit of publicity by asking a hundred or so celebrities and authors to nominate current abuses of the English language. The result, of course, was a positive feast of change-and-decay-in-all-around-I-see, as those well-known commentators on linguistic change Terry Waite, Bob Monkhouse and Sue Lawley stood up to protect the poor language from the barbarians at the gate.

Unfortunately, the ability of the strangely-assorted masses to opine about linguistic correctness was severely undermined by the fact that Collins asked them to take a spelling test of some slightly tricky English words, such as supersede, resuscitate, consensus and so on. Only four people got full marks - one the novelist Shena Mackay, who, I must say, I had always thought of as a woman to have on your side in a spelling bee. Individual users, such as poor old John Prescott, came in for a severe bashing for such heinous offences as saying "sceptre" when he meant "spectre" and speaking in rambling sentences, as most people do. Split infinitives were mentioned a great deal, and the use of words such as "nightmare", as in "I've just had a nightmare of an afternoon", described as deplorable and inappropriate exaggeration. Someone complained about Frank Dobson saying "different to" rather than "different from"; someone else about the Prime Minister using nouns as verbs, as in "tasking". Another commentator thought that the use of the expression "bored of" rather than "bored with" was a complete disgrace, not quite seeing that the really logical, though rather pissy expression ought to be be "bored by".

I can't think that this really needs to be said again, but this is all the most total rubbish. Of course, we all have our prejudices about linguistic use; personally, I dislike the use of the word "pristine" to mean "clean", or "jejune" to mean "childish", while seeing that it's a bit of a lost battle. And other people's views on language always seem either prissy - just fancy caring that everyone now says "bored of" - or slack. I have no particular opinion about "different to" or "different from", but the now common American usage "different than" makes me wince.

And certainly it isn't hard to come up with some really revolting abuse; the other day, on a pompous American wildlife programme on the telly, I heard someone say "Domestic animals face challenges utterly unique than those presented to their wild cousins." But really - how often does this need to be said? - language changes. It doesn't get worse or better; it just changes. And the worst abuses spring not from pristine ignorance, but from some idiot who vaguely knows something about grammar and prefers to say "A friend has invited my wife and I to dinner" and who complains volubly about the rare and frankly abstruse question of the split infinitive. What's wrong with "nightmare"? It's a bit banal, I see that, but people pick it up and use it because it's a vivid word. Other targets of complaint were quite simply about the way the English language has always grown. If Tony Blair is wrong to shift the word "task" from one part of speech to another, then so is every great writer in English; when Shakespeare made Cleopatra say that she would be "window'd in great Rome", he didn't worry for a moment that the word "window" is now and ever shall be a noun, understanding that English structures are not the same as Latin ones.

The whole history of the English language is a history of the simplification of grammatical structures. English nouns used to have genders, like French; the accusative whom used to have a parallel form in which, and I dare say there were plenty of people around to complain that things were going to the dogs when it started to disappear. And I wonder if a lot of the targets of complaints here serve to identify the next stage of simplification. For instance, one respondent complained about the use of the expression "20 pound", saying that it was illiterate not to say "pounds". Well, perhaps for the moment it is, but it's already common in black and American speech for plurals to be dropped after a number, as in "Five bag".

God save us from self-appointed guardians of the language, whose strictures on correctness serve mainly to introduce spectacularly ludicrous new errors, who have a vague belief that it is somehow wrong to begin a sentence with "and" or end one with a preposition, who stand in the way of ordinary, vivid speech and writing. The users of English can look after it perfectly well. As for those maiden-auntish "rules" deriving from 18th-century Latin grammarians - well, frankly, I'm just bored of them.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food