Mr PM "Pip" Letts, a schoolmaster once nominated by the novelist Sebastian Faulks as one of the great influences of his life, walked into the classroom for an English lesson. He noticed me, skulking sheepishly in the back row, licked his thin lips and peered at me over his half-moon specs. "Naughty," he said.
My naughtiness, painfully remembered to this day, was to have failed an exam called Use of English. Nobody, least of all someone hoping to read English at university, failed Use of English. Designed to ensure that even the most word-blind science nerd learnt basic language skills before they took A-levels, it was a low hurdle over which anyone with half a brain was expected easily to soar.
Decades later, I am now man enough to place the blame for my failure squarely where it belongs - on the scurfy, gowned shoulders of Pip Letts. Where Faulks found inspiration, I had my first encounter with pure, cold pedantry.
I used to enjoy writing until Pip turned it into an assault course of usage. A neatly written, well-spelt, grammatically correct essay, however dreary, would receive higher marks than one, however imaginative, which contained a subordinate clause which failed to follow the noun with which it referred, a split infinitive, a dangling present participle, a hanging preposition, or - a particular bugbear - the pronoun "I".
A weary, dry sarcasm was Pip's favoured mode of criticism. At the foot of one essay, he drew a small circle with a dot at its centre and wrote, in his neat, constipated handwriting, "I think you'll find this a useful device." Bewildered by what was clearly a drawing of a female breast (I was 16 at the time), I was later told that it represented a full stop.
He must have been a good teacher in his way because his irritating obsession with usage has stayed with me long after the work of flashier, more enthusiastic teachers has been forgotten. I would hear his voice on occasions when my wife, who also liked correctness in these matters, would murmur "imply" when I had said "infer".
Even now, I am aware of a faint twinge of guilt when I use the first-person pronoun or - admittedly rather too often - punctuate with dashes rather than semi-colons. In true Lettsian spirit, an Independent reader once sent me one of my own articles with various solecisms and grammatical inaccuracies marked in red ink: it bugged me more effectively than any letter criticising my views or character.
In his introduction to a new book by James Cochrane, Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English, John Humphrys argues that what he calls "linguistic anarchy" is seriously harmful to our intellectual and political health. "The more elaborate and the more precise our vocabulary, the greater the scope for thought and expression. Language is about subtlety and nuance. It is powerful and it is potent..." (Pip might have raised an eyebrow at the use of two adjectives meaning the same thing.) "Despots fear the words of the articulate opponent."
Paradoxically, a devastating confirmation of the power of language is on show at the London film festival in Michael Raeburn's moving documentary Zimbabwe Countdown. As Raeburn points out, one of the most effective weapons deployed by Robert Mugabe is his precise and sophisticated use of language in speeches to his people and to other African nations. Here pedantry works for, rather than against, despotism.
But Humphrys' anger is so convincing that future books of usage might usefully include a new word "to humph", meaning to rage in an effective, if slightly middle-aged, manner. The use of nouns as verbs ("impacting", "sourcing", "fast tracking") cheeses him off, as do phrases of managers who like to "push the envelope" or "think outside the box".
A Cambridge graduate who dared to say, during a job interview with the BBC, that he had been "proactively networking", deserved to be publicly executed and left hanging in the lobby of Television Centre as a warning to others, according to Humphrys.
It was while reading Cochrane's cool, disdainfully precise A-Z of linguistic misuse that I received a shock. Here it all is: linguistic misuse, confusion, obfuscation, muddled thinking, illustrated by examples of slack, inaccurate or clumsy writing from government departments or from the pages of The Times or the The Daily Telegraph. Maybe it is something that creeps up on men in their middle years, but I found myself muttering in agreement.
Within a few days of the publication of Cochrane's book, another work on language, from the other end of the cultural spectrum, will be published. In Chris Lewis's The Dictionary of Playground Slang, we discover that, out of the reach of hacks and business types, some brilliant new words are appearing: "chelping" is talking rubbish, a "nimp" is an easy task, a "pagga" a playground brawl.
They may cause humphing in certain circles but who could deny that, whether they are correct or not, our language is richer for them?Reuse content