Charles fights word war with colonial grammarian
Wednesday 17 May 1995
In May last year the Washington Post quoted the heir to the throne as saying in an address to the Newspaper Society that he had "had it" with bad English grammar. Mr Handley, unwittingly initiating an exchange of correspondence with St James' Palace, addressed a letter to "His Royal Highness" respectfully suggesting that he should practise what he preached.
"When I hear you speak," Mr Handley wrote, "I frequently hear you make common mistakes in English grammar such as, 'It was given to she and an old friend' and 'This is between you and I'. I am concerned about your use of poor grammar because I am a narrator and I am expected to speak the King's English."
Mr Handley makes a lucrative living selling his voice - and sometimes his face - for commercials and documentaries on American radio and television. There was a time when the Prince of Wales would not have deigned to reply to such a man. To Mr Handley's surprise, barely two weeks had passed before he received a letter from Stephen Lamport, the prince's deputy private secretary.
"His Royal Highness was puzzled by your letter, and hopes that he does not, in practice, fall into the awful grammatical traps you describe," Mr Lamport wrote, enclosing a copy of the full speech to the Newspaper Society so Mr Handley could see for himself just how punctilious the prince was about his use of English.
On 28 December Mr Handley wrote back, pointing out that Mr Lamport had hoist the prince with his own petard. The speech, Mr Handley contended, was littered with grammatical mistakes. Take this extract from the very first page: "the reason for doing so, and I must make this clear from the beginning, was because I have considerable admiration..." Proper English, Mr Handley said, required the prince to say "the reason...was THAT I have considerable admiration".
Any suggestion that the prince had merely had "a bad day grammatically", Mr Handley wrote, had been dispelled by his performance in last year's famously candid television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In reply to the question whether he had been faithful to Princess Diana, the prince had said: "Yes...Until [the marriage] became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried."
Not "us", Mr Handley sniffed, but "our".
In the reproachful tone of a kindly teacher's end-of-term report, Mr Handley's letter to Mr Lamport concluded: "Certainly no one is immune to occasional slips, but the prince and his mother have been making an inordinate amount for years ... Please pass along my comments to His Royal Highness. I hope he will give them serious consideration and will take steps to improve the situation."
As far as Mr Handley was concerned the matter had been laid to rest. Imagine, then, his distress when he opened his Washington Post on 25 March this year and read an article saying that Prince Charles had been attacking "those of us here in the Colonies who, he thinks, are a bit too liberal with the language!" The prince had accused non-English English-speakers of corrupting the language, of inventing "all sorts of new nouns and verbs" and making "words that shouldn't be". "I think we have to be a bit careful, otherwise the whole thing gets rather a mess," the prince was quoted as saying.
Mr Handley's response was to write an article of his own in the Post noting that, once more, the prince had shot himself in the foot. "Sigh," Mr Handley wrote. "That gets TO BE rather a mess."
Perhaps Mr Lamport saw the article, because three days after it appeared he wrote to Mr Handley, belatedly responding - point by tortuous point - to the letter of 28 December. This was Mr Lamport's defence of the prince's "us both having tried": "I can best describe this phrase as a slightly conservative use of the absolute construction. It is technically a dative absolute, a construction which occurs in Old English, modelled on the Latin ablative absolute."
Mr Handley, judging the time had come to enlist help against the torrent of royal gobbledygook, phoned the Independent's Washington office. "Lamport's reply is such obvious spin control and BS that it speaks for itself," Mr Handley complained. "And it's just bullshit to say the language is used correctly in England but not in America."
The cause might be just but did one detect in Mr Handley a latent distaste for the British royal family? Was his indignation at the prince's purported malapropisms the expression of a deeper, possibly historical, resentment?
Far from it.
"I would be very sorry to see the monarchy go," he said. "It gives England something special. It's good for tourism and good for the image. And whether the average American admits it or not, they are the royalty of the English- speaking world. They're kind of our prince and our queen."
A gracious letter of thanks from the palace would, perhaps, be in order.
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