I'm bored of pedantic grammarians
How often does it need to be said? Language doesn't get worse or better; it just changes
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 25 June 1999
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.
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