Education: Nobody's word is final

The language of Shakespeare and Milton is alive and well ... and changing all the time. Teachers should be prepared to separate useful grammar from museum pieces, says Godfrey Howard
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The Independent Online
The Education Secretary and her Opposition shadow bang the drum about standards in English. But neither of them tells us what they mean by good English. In the two years I was compiling The Macmillan Good English Handbook there was conflicting advice from a panel of experienced writers, editors, broadcasters and other dedicated users of English. It became clear that Standard English should be written standard English, with a small s, to avoid any suggestion of absolute authority, since such authority does not exist. The linguistic goal posts are moving all the time.

What kind of English does the Education Secretary and her shadow want teachers to teach? If it is the English they learnt at school 20, 30, 40 or more years ago, here is a warning from William Safire, who writes a column on language for The New York Times: "... if sticking grimly to the rules of grammar makes you sound like a pompous pedant, you are a pompous pedant!"

Not that changes are always for the better, for distinctions of meaning and points of style are sometimes lost on the way. Yet English remains as forceful and flexible as it was for Shakespeare and Milton, Eliot and Graham Greene.

The language is alive and well and we need to be in touch with the mainstream of its development. Teaching English, and using English for that matter, requires balance and good sense in separating valid and useful grammar from grammatical museum pieces.

Educationists are agreed that English is the most important subject in the curriculum. It is also the most contentious. Although it is as basic as mother's milk, we have never argued so much as we do now about the language we use every day of our lives. My panel of informed users of English constantly demonstrated that the language has to be negotiated rather than confronted. There is much more freedom now in the way we can use English, but a language cannot survive without order. Good writers respect the language and at the same time respond to the way it is changing. They walk the tightrope between traditional usage and what is out of touch with both language and society on the brink of the new millennium.

For we do have to take into account social attitudes towards language. English is loaded with prejudices, and dictionaries have been forced to include new linguistic labels, such as offens. (short for offensive) or derog. (short for derogatory). There is a feeling that we can change underlying injustices by changing the words that reflect them. It certainly seems a step in the right direction to avoid words that disparage, even unintentionally, women, blacks, Jews, gays ... But how far should we teach linguistic political correctness? Policing the language to avoid offending anyone would leave us with a kind of Orwellian newspeak, toeing the party line and saying nothing.

Political correctness even moves in on grammar. Words such as everybody, nobody, someone are clearly singular ("everybody is..."). Such words were traditionally followed by he or his ("Nobody has taken his seat yet."). The assumption that he, his, him automatically includes women is considered sexist. But there is no third-person unisex singular pronoun in English. We can wear our readers out by writing he or she all the time (varying it out of fairness with she or he!). Or we can see as the way ahead using they, them, their as unisex singular pronouns ("nobody has taken their seat yet").

Some people shake their heads angrily over this elastic attitude towards singular and plural. Not that there is anything new about it. In the 19th century, Thackeray was writing "Nobody prevents you, do they?" and Shaw remarked characteristically: "Nobody would ever marry if they thought it over."

We are told it is ageism to call someone old: old people are elderly. We can have an old car, old wine, old friends, old habits, etc, but people are not supposed to be old any more. Perhaps old-age pensioners do prefer the dignity of senior citizens, since OAP seems to write them off. On the other hand, a letter to The Independent objected to this namby-pamby: "Don't call me a senior citizen," it said. "Just call me a little old lady."

There is also inverted ageism. Some dictionaries have noted that feminists consider the word girl can be sexist. A few years ago this was a typical definition: "woman working in office, shop, factory, etc, woman secretary or other assistant". Some recent dictionaries are more sensitive and use definitions such as "a female child" "a young unmarried woman", adding that girl for an older woman is "informal". There are people who argue that we would not call a man over 18 a boy, so why call a woman a girl, with its implication of immaturity and lack of importance?

In the end, whose language is it anyway? Ever since it was brought to these shores as an obscure dialect, by Germanic tribes in the fifth century, English has been shaped and developed by everyone who uses it, not just by the great and the good, perhaps even less by Secretaries of State for Education.

Nor do dictionaries have any rights over the language. Of course we should be lost without them, for they chart the vast wilderness of words in which we wander all our lives. But dictionaries reflect the opinions of their editors, which is why entries can vary from one dictionary to another. Editors' decisions are invaluable as guidance, but are not always final, and may be out of date. There are times when we - not our dictionary - should havethe last word.

The author is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. 'The Macmillan Good English Handbook' is published tomorrow in hardback at pounds 9.99.