The language is languishing: A whole generation has become oblivious to verbal ugliness, says Michael Dummett

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The Independent Online
WHEN students arrive at a university, they are assumed to know certain things. Among them are the fundamentals of English grammar, the use of punctuation signs, the spelling of English words and the means of constructing stylistically inoffensive English sentences. Since they are assumed to know these things, it is nobody's business to teach them; it is therefore only by unusual luck that students who have failed to master them before they come to university will be any better at them when they obtain their degrees.

When, two years ago, I was one of the examiners in philosophy in the final examinations in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, I received a shock: the scripts were marred by pervasive grammatical error, stylistic ugliness and incorrect spelling. On the results of the examinations, the candidates would obtain university degrees; and that it should be possible for them to gain university degrees with so poor a command of the technique of writing seemed to me grievously wrong. I could not, as an examiner, do anything about it: to have marked them down for linguistic mistakes would have been unfair. Yet a university degree is a certificate of having attained a much higher level of education than most have the chance of reaching, and these candidates were writing in a manner that, a few years earlier, I should have regarded as a mark of a very poor education: using 'lead to' in the past tense or 'alternately' in place of 'alternatively', or spelling 'caucus' as 'caucous'.

What most distressed me were not the particular errors but the attitude to language manifested in these scripts. The writers showed themselves oblivious to verbal ugliness, unaware that one form of expression can be hideous, another graceful; only someone unaware of that could have perpetrated the sentence: 'We should not treat others merely based on statistical guidelines based on the group they belong to', however unexceptionable the sentiment. Today's university students have become accustomed to express themselves by grabbing the first word or phrase that comes to mind, without thought for its exact meaning, the grammatical constructions it allows or the euphony of the resulting sentence. They lack, and would probably repudiate, the conception of a respect for language. For them language is simply at their disposal, and they plunder it as a starving man might plunder a larder.

It would be absurd to suppose this to affect university students uniquely: what is at large true of them must be true at large of their whole generation. It has affected older generations, too, at least after they completed their education. After examining, I started to compose a short book to help examination candidates to avoid these mistakes. I used examples taken from the scripts I had read; but I realised later that I had omitted many common mistakes. I easily found examples in television broadcasts and newspapers; instead of merely wincing, as I had been accustomed to do, I wrote them down. Only a few nights ago, indeed, I heard the Prime Minister say on television, 'It will lay there'; he was not speaking of a hen.

This phenomenon is surely at least a decade old. Probably the graduates who, a short while back, showed themselves able to write decent English have since learned to copy the mistakes now so prevalent; many have turned into those journalists and politicians who persistently commit them. If so, it is because they were never trained to be aware of their use of words, or taught to perceive the difference between an ambiguous and a lucid sentence, or a clumsy and a pleasing one.

Indeed, they have been taught that there is no difference. I recently received from a colleague a list of spelling mistakes collected from examination scripts, including 'fewtile', 'particals', 'spieces' and 'pocess' (for 'possess'). He told me that the candidates had said to him, 'We were told it didn't matter'. If someone has been badly taught, he will make many mistakes in writing; but so long as he retains the idea of a mistake, he has a chance of correcting them. But one who has been taught that there can be no such thing as a linguistic mistake will pick up every error or misuse he comes across: his linguistic immune system has been destroyed.

Just as it would be unfair to blame young people for their ignorance of the language, so it would be unfair to blame the teachers for doing what they have been taught to do. The buck stops, I think, at those professors of linguistics and of education who have been so lavish with sneers at talk of correct usage. Rules and definition, they proclaim, are not prescriptive but descriptive: they merely register how most people speak and what most people mean. They write as if the meanings speakers attach to their words and sentences were as directly observable as the way they pronounce them; they fail to explain why, if so, we need to learn foreign languages in order to understand them.

We understand the words of others because we know their meanings in the language. Certainly, it is often possible to understand another when he misuses a word, because the context renders his intention plain; this fact underlies much linguistic change. But changes can be good when they enrich the language, and bad when they impoverish it; they are not inevitable, but can be resisted. Most of the mistakes now frequently committed are deleterious: they obliterate distinctions. The confusion between 'uninterested and 'disinterested' notoriously has this effect, as does that between 'gourmet' and 'gourmand'. Our language, like others, is a beautifully tuned instrument of expression, fashioned by generations who have loved it. The duty in which we are so dismally failing is to hand it on in as good a condition as that in which we inherited it.

The writer is emeritus professor of logic at the University of Oxford. His book 'Grammar and Style' will be published by Duckworth (pounds 8.99) in June.