Rules to kill English with

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So, the Oxford University Press is relaxing rules on the use of split infinitives, the use of "but" at the start of sentences and the use of mono-sentence paragraphs. Bully for them.

Naturally, this will engender a backlash from those who see their role in life as defenders of that notorious oxymoron "correct English". As if correct English were to the language what "full English" is to the breakfast: a comprehensive, wholesome, national repast that will keep you regularly using the right syntax and grammar throughout the day.

Of course, the problem here is that any such prescriptive rules - telling people what should and shouldn't be done with a language - will utterly fail to generate more English sentences, whether "correct" or not. And the only way to discover if a piece of English is truly grammatical is to go and ask the people who use it if they understand it. YerknowwhatImean an' that?

The whole industry of language correctness has become the preserve of a group of prissy conformists, whose attempts to bolster the status quo are as transparent as those of censors in any other medium.

The notion of "correct English" belongs to the 18th century and the rise of British imperialism, when it began to be believed that English should aspire to the regularity and (alleged) clarity of Latin. But Latin was already, by this time, a dead and codified language, no longer subject to the ceaseless change and mutation that marks a living tongue.

Another key factor needed for language correctness is a desire to impose class and ethnic differences, by reinforcing a hierarchy of acceptable usage. Looked at this way, the drive towards "correct English" is to class divisions as the Academie Francaise is to French cultural isolationism: a great support.

However, the written language does not exist in isolation, it is continually fertilised and synergised by foreign languages, argot, patois and slang. This occurs at the level of utterance, when the multifarious semiologies - body language, accent, gesture, tone, touch - are simultaneously braided in the act of understanding.

Looked at this way "correct English" is dry, dead English; the language with which one would converse with a computer, not a lover.

Of course, there is a need for people who write English with the intention of conveying complex ideas to have a close understanding of how to accurately parse a sentence. But this is not analogous to the need a fine artist has to be a proficient draughtsman. Too many of the rules followed by the writer are, in fact, meta-rules. These rules about rules are a limiting constraint. They help the writer to easily express, solely, what can be easily conceived. They are, therefore, part of the problem to which the only solution is the neologism and the wilfully misapplied rule.


The writer is a novelist and critic.