Fry's English Delight, Radio 4
Frying tonight – the English language and all those who abuse it
Sunday 16 August 2009
He may be a national treasure, broadcasting's go-to guy for anything vaguely intellectual, but is it possible to have too much of Stephen Fry? I'm wary of saying anything unduly adverse, given his stance on critics. "No one would volunteer for this dreadful trade but the kind of worthless and embittered offal that we, by and large, get," he's written. (Oi! Less of the embittered!) But ubiquity breeds discontent. Look at Jonathan Ross.
I don't think we're quite there yet. The nation can take a few more Fry-ups. Having been one of the three new Humphrey Lytteltons in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue recently, he was back last week with the second series of Fry's English Delight. The first instalment, "So Wrong It's Right", tracked the ways in which English develops partly by dint of mistakes made so often that they become part of the language – such as split infinitives. (Cue the Star Trek theme.)
The reason we're so against them, according to Jeremy Butterfield, a language boffin, is because English grammar is based on Latin grammar. The prohibition on them is nothing more, he said, than "a superstition". He was a repository of linguistic curios bobbing about in the stream of language-change, such as the fact that "pea" is a back-formation from pease pudding. "It became right through usage," he said. "Language is democratic."
A subeditor from The Times was enlisted to fill the grumpy-old-man slot. It was good to hear him ranting about my absolute bugbear, the dangling participle, as in: "A good crosser and passer of the ball, Beckham's career began in London." (What? Beckham's career is a good crosser and passer of the ball?) "It's not as if our brains are eroding away," The Times man says. (He may be wrong about that: see Big Brother, and radio phone-ins.) "Why should we see standards drop and drop and drop and see exams become easier and easier?"
Butterfield was clear-eyed about change, though. He winces when he hears "with regards to". "But does it really matter in the end?" Fry spluttered, but like linguistic pedants everywhere, he's fighting a losing battle.
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