Words: Change

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SOMEONE ON the Today programme, talking about Monica Lewinsky's appearances on television, said he didn't think her opinions would change very much. I said to myself "Well, why should they?" She had already made it clear that she had changed from thinking of President Clinton as Mr Handsome to thinking of him as the Big Creep and that from now on married men were, as she put it to Jon Snow, "definite no-nos"; and we doubted whether she would go back on that.

Then I realised that I had entirely misunderstood what was being said. I had thought that "change" was an intransitive verb and that "very much" was its attendant adverbial qualifier. Silly me. Of course, "change" was transitive and the "very much" was a noun-phrase (Chomsky's "NP") and the object of the sentence. What the speaker on Today was trying to say was that Monica's new Lewinsky promotion drive wouldn't make very much difference to anything.

Two thoughts then occurred to me. The first was how foolish it was for schoolteachers not to teach grammar. One could understand their reasons. Some of them thought grammar might bore the pupils, and they knew how bad boredom was for classroom discipline (as if they didn't have enough troubles already). Others, more deviously, declined to teach it because they had noticed that some pupils' grammar was better than others' and they felt that to draw attention to this point might be socially divisive. Luckily, fewer teachers think this way now, if only because they've discovered how much easier it is to point out ambiguities in a pupil's piece of writing if the pupil knows the function of the words that he or she has been using, and can name them if necessary.

The other thought was that there must be something seriously wrong with a language that allows such ambiguities in the first place. Or could it be simply that people are becoming sloppier in their use of it - perhaps because they weren't taught grammar, as writers to the Daily Telegraph (change and decay in all around they see) so often claim?

In this particular case the answer is no. Change has been both transitive and intransitive since the 13th century. We have had to guess which it was from the context. And usually there hasn't been a problem. In the days (for example) when the middle classes disappeared each evening before dinner saying they were "going to change" no one thought they were about to do a Jekyll-and-Hyde act. They were using the word transitively, without even thinking about it.

But ours is a sloppy language, isn't it? - unlike French, with its Latin roots and its dislike of those ambiguous noun-strings like teacher assessment that so disfigure our speech. However, the French changer is just as unpredictable in its behaviour as its English equivalent. On a change tout cela is transitive. Paris, tu n'as pas change, as in the song, is not, so shouldn't it be n'es pas not n'as pas? So much for French logic. One can easily get too sentimental about the French language. Some of us would just as soon sing "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner".

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