English language being led astray

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The Independent Online
Shakespeare did it. School-leavers and university students do it. Now even princes, prime ministers and professors of English are breaking the rules of grammar. Even the Prince of Wales, does not always speak the Queen's English.

Their failings are highlighted today by Professor John Honey, former professor of education at Leicester Polytechnic and now professor of English at Osaka International University in Japan. Professor Honey, a long-standing critic of education standards in Britain and a champion of standard grammar, has spent 15 years noting the mistakes of the famous.

His main concern, elaborated in an article called "A new rule for the Queen and I" in the journal English Today, is the pronoun case.

He points out that, under existing rules, the pronoun changes if it is the object rather than the subject. For example, we say "my wife and I went" but "he dislikes my wife and me".

Though Dr Johnson was a stickler for the correct use of the pronoun, Shakespeare, Thackeray and Dickens were not. Professor Honey wants the rules changed because so many well-known people are breaking them. He cites as examples:

t Baroness Thatcher (Oxford graduate): "It is not for you and I sitting here to condemn ..."

t Sir Rhodes Boyson (Ex-headmaster and former education minister): "The Labour party have taken the Red Rose as their emblem [but] I don't think they asked permission of we Lancastrians before they did it."

t Professor Brian Cox (professor of English at Manchester University and chairman of a government working party on English): "Philip Larkin expressed nervousness about allying himself to we jackbooted characters."

t The case of the Prince of Wales is more complicated. In an interview with the BBC last year when asked if he had been faithful to his wife, he replied: "Yes, until it had become clear that it had irretrievably broken down, us both having tried."

Professor Honey suggests that the Oxford English Dictionary recognises the use of "us" and a participle in what is technically called an absolute construction. On the other hand, the prince might have mixed up "we both having tried" and "both of us having tried".

Professor Cox said last week: "The view of all modern linguists is that the concept of correctness as absolute is foolish because our notions of correctness keep changing."

Peter Bassett, of the Queen's English Society, countered; "You would not find a single soul among our members who would support a change in the rules. Words still have a specific meaning. Unless people use them correctly there will come a time when we don't know what we mean."

Professor Honey suggests an alternative rule for optional use by academics, politicians, exam candidates and, of course, by you and me/I.