Arm yourself with English

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The Independent Online
Professor Jean Aitchison makes a compelling case in her Reith Lectures, especially when she points out that the English language has never been static - and nor should it be. One of the enduringly fascinating things about English is the way it has adapted to meet changing times and the requirements of the greatest variety of peoples and cultures.

I hear examples all the time of new word usages, part of the revolution that Professor Aitchison invites us to embrace. A few days ago I read in an American newspaper that some great performer had "debuted" at a concert hall in Washington. I was a little taken aback by "debuted". It is not elegant, but neither is it too serious a crime against convention. It is yet another indication of the organic nature of the language. I would be the last to suggest that proper speech and good grammar are being swamped by a tide of corruption and bad manners. I even find it difficult to define "proper speech".

Yet I think all this vaguely academic. And I also believe it misses an important point. Language can be an extremely useful tool which empowers those who use it effectively. The importance of the way that young people use language cannot be overstated. It can make the difference between success and failure.

It is all very well to argue that there is nothing wrong with split infinitives, that prepositions at the end of sentences have a long and honourable history and that only actors pronounce some words with utter precision. That is not the issue. When young people present themselves to prospective employers, if they drop the endings of words, use sloppy speech patterns and fail to make themselves properly understood, then no claims about the chequered history of English will come to their rescue. They will be considered careless and failures in the business of good communication.

That, in the end, is what the use of language is all about. This, by the way, has nothing to do with criticisms of regional accents or other thoughtless attempts to eradicate the language's richness or colour.

Professor Aitchison gently takes Lord Tebbit to task for his suggestion in 1985 that there was a connection between bad English and criminal degeneracy. Lord Tebbit might well have been guilty of hyperbole, but he had a point to make. Poorly constructed sentences and thoughts expressed clumsily make for bad communication and also convey bad impressions.

At a White House celebration honouring Winston Churchill, John Kennedy said of our great wartime Prime Minister: "When the dark clouds of war hung over the United Kingdom, he mobilised the language and sent it into battle."

He sent the language into battle. That is precisely the challenge facing the younger users of our language today. A history of the development of our organic language is no use to those who use it badly.

The writer heads the steering group set up to establish a Campaign for the Better Use of the English Language and is ITN's anchorman for 'News At Ten'.