Pandering to pedantic pleasures

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The Independent Online
They were talking dirty on Word of Mouth this week (Radio 4, Tuesday). They were also talking about sex, but that's beside the point. Word of Mouth panders to a different set of base instincts - the low pleasures of pedantry. There are people who go through life clenching their teeth every time they hear "presently" used to mean "at present", their indignation hourly stoked by infinitives split, participles dangled, sentences ended with prepositions. To these tortured, suppressed souls, Busty Madame, Mature and Proud Of It - well, Russell Davies - Offers Relief. In the comfort of his boudoir, you can air all those thoughts you never dared utter.

This is probably unfair, both to Davies, who is for the most part a wise and tolerant commentator on language, and to his listeners, many of whom no doubt have a perfectly healthy, open attitude to grammar, happy to answer their children's questions about gerunds, to parse freely and frankly in public. But I've harboured a deep suspicion of the Word of Mouth audience ever since the time, a couple of years back, that they voted Enoch Powell the best living speaker of English, spellbound by his rigid adherence to grammatical rules and completely ignoring the dirgey monotone in which his thoughts are embodied. I'm not encouraged by the fact that an inadvertent "shit" from Anna Ford on Today can practically jam the BBC switchboard and make headlines in the press.

I suppose these people deserve our sympathy as much as our condemnation: to set such store by artificially constructed rules of language is odd, to say the least, and it suggests that what is going on is a powerful sublimation of other anxieties - about class and social change, mainly. It would be worth knowing whether the BBC gets more complaints about language at times of political uncertainty.

But it's surely not right to pander to these fears by inviting contributions to "The People's Lexicon". This is a list of approved and reviled tropes to be nominated by listeners - in effect, a kind of linguistic "Readers' Wives" page. And though it was a joy to hear Frank Delaney on the air again, after a long absence through illness, it would have been nicer if he hadn't been putting up a daft defence of the subjunctive, on the grounds that it is a mood that offers a sense of possibility unattainable with the plain old indicative. The implication seemed to be that the 98 per cent of the English-speaking world who wouldn't know a subjunctive were it (note the construction) to tap them on the shoulder and ask them the time must lack imagination.

More sublimated social anxieties in Ip Dip Doo (Radio 2, Wednesday), in which Georgina Boyes confronted the myth that the modern child has abandoned old-fashioned playground games in favour of computer games. In fact, the programme demonstrated that children's games are remarkable for their longevity - the most telling example being a clapping game which amalgamated a popular song of the 1940s with the old favourite "It's raining, it's pouring, the old man's snoring": this must have been passed down through at least 10 generations of primary school children. Boyes suggested that this is the equivalent of an adult folk-song surviving since the early 18th century.

Of course, folk-songs don't survive this long, largely because they are sung by people with irritating nasal voices; and a promising programme was ruined by the inclusion of several examples of this. These have roughly the effect on me that split infinitives have on other people, but don't run away with the idea that this is some sort of sublimation. Sometimes hatred can be pure.

The news that Martin Bell's series "The Truth Is Our Currency" was being postponed came too late to stop it being reviewed here last week. Apologies for any confusion; and snooks cocked at the BBC for withdrawing a programme about bias in the news at the very moment when the issue most demands consideration.

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