Tom Hodgkinson: 'Professional grammarians are desperate to be down with the kids'


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The Independent Online

Various blockheads have detected some sort of right-wing conspiracy behind the publication of Gwynne's Grammar, a short introduction to the art of good writing which I have helped to publish. In fact, my plan was to continue the radical tradition of William Cobbett and George Orwell. Both encouraged the British to study our own language in order to sharpen our minds and detect humbug. In his introduction to his own very funny guide to grammar, published in 1817, the fantastically bloody-minded radical Cobbett wrote that he wanted to "lay the solid foundation of literary knowledge amongst the labouring classes of the community; to give practical effect to the natural genius found in the soldier, the sailor, the apprentice and the ploughboy".

Good grammar, argued Cobbett, is essential: "The actions of man proceed from their thoughts. In order to obtain the cooperation, the concurrence, the consent of others, we must communicate our thoughts to them. The means of this communication are words; and grammar teaches us how to make use of words."

Last week I saw Gwynne's Grammar on sale at the Gordano service station on the M5. Result! People like it. But the professionals hate it. They believe language constantly changes and any attempt to pin down a few rules is hopelessly old-fashioned. They write learned essays, which no one reads, on the joys of slang expressions such as OMG. They argue that if enough people use a word in the wrong way, that way becomes the right way. Thoroughly utilitarian, they are desperate to be seen as down with the kids.

Their arguments were effectively demolished by Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language". He wrote that these anti-grammar Nazis will claim that, "any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light… Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."

This, indeed, is the restaurant and TV critic AA Gill's view. "Nobody can dam or alter its path or direct its destination," he wrote recently of the English language. "It belongs to whoever finds it in their mouth." Bit of a strange mix of metaphors, there. A watery stream of English pours into your mouth. Yuk! Orwell again: "The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash – as in: 'The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song' – it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking."

Orwell goes on to argue: "[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

The professionals, on the other hand, argue that there is no such thing as "correct" and that we ought to look at how words are used in what they call "real communicative situations". The job of the grammarian is simply to sit back and observe.

Orwell does, it is true, attempt to distance himself from the pedants. He says that his attack on bad English "has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear". Having said that, he produces a set of six rules, which could be summed up in one word: simplify. Never use jargon, is one. Avoid familiar metaphors. Never use long words when you could use a short word. Cut, cut, cut. I'm delighted that Gwynne's Grammar has removed the subject from the ivory towers and put it in the hands of the people.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'