Education professor wants language laws to teach us right from wrong

David Walker on a radical idea for a French-style authority to save Standard English

David Walker
Saturday 16 August 1997 23:02

An Education professor who says the present generation of schoolchildren has grown up unable to tell "laying down" from "lying down", and regularly perpetrates illiteracies, is calling for the foundation of a National Language Authority to regulate English language use.

The Authority - made up of scholars, novelists, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and professional writers - would issue directives on the use of "whom", "whose" and phrases such as "he ran quicker".

The proposal is made in a new book by Professor John Honey, a long-time critic of the English-teaching establishment. He says the refusal of teachers to instruct their pupils in grammar and proper English usage is based on a body of linguistics research which he terms "a lot of crap".

This week, in response to pressure from the National Association of English Teachers, the introduction of compulsory tests in grammar for 14 year olds ordered by the former Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard was halted. Labour ministers want a further review of how to test children on their use of English and sentence construction, possibly without formal grammar lessons. But in Language is Power, 63-year old Professor Honey says the anti-grammarians have been seduced by academic theorists, still training undergraduates and future English teachers, who assert all languages (including dialects and pidgin) are equal and Standard English is "oppressive".

From his retirement home in Cambridge - Honey was previously dean of education at Leicester Polytechnic and a professor of English in Japan - the language crusader wants to alert Labour ministers to the dangers of the education establishment's embrace. He is, however, anxious to distinguish his proposal from what he calls "English reactionaries defending the most conservative and inflexible notions of correct English".

His Authority would allow all split infinitives and dangling participles because they are now in common use by educated people and do not inhibit understanding of Standard English. The point of having an Authority is to offer reassurance and security to people who are not sure - and who do not believe the trendy linguistic theorists who say anything goes. Standard English will have to co-exist, he says, with American English though there are large parts of the world, including India and Europe, where British models are more likely to be followed.

"Of course language is constantly changing," he says, "though not as fast as has been claimed. What was once an error can become an accepted use - but only if accepted by the consensus of educated opinion. That's the way Standard English has evolved over 600 years.

"We cannot any longer rely on what my generation were taught back in primary or prep school. That's why we need an Academy. It's rules like 'never begin a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition' that need to be changed." Among Professor Honey's examples are "cohort" - used wrongly to mean a colleague or contemporary." The Authority would restrict "cohort" to "group with specific common characteristics, such as year of birth".

The Authority would ban the misuse of "reticent" to mean "reluctant" as in (from a journalistic profile of Alan Bennett) "the writer is reticent to try to analyse his craft". The Authority would strive to rescue the correct usage of "decimate" or at least ban usages such as (sportsman on television) "I am absolutely decimated for Steven".

Another solecism which the Authority would resist is the substition of "may have" for "might have" as in the Jeffrey Archer phrase "If someone else had won the leadership my life may have taken a totally different course." Lord Archer, incidentally, would be excluded from membership of the Authority along with Jilly Cooper and other massmarket paperback writers, Professor Honey says.

About "who" and "whom" the Authority would be more relaxed. Graffiti and media and data would be allowed as singular nouns, on the grounds that knowledge of Latin let alone Italian is not now widespread.

An early task would be to establish a unisex pronoun to replace "he or she" and "his or her". A plural verb after a singular noun as in (on a BBC radio programme) "In England one in four of the poor today are children" is a usage "increasingly common among the educated so we may have to get used to this type".

Though the idea of a national academy of English was proposed by Jonathan Swift in 1712, Britain has never had a body like the Academie Francaise which has regulated vocabulary, spelling and language use in France for nearly 300 years. The French have notoriously tried to substitute their own words (eg l'ordinateur for computer) for the international - English - language of information technology.

Though Germany has no central language body, and German has in recent years been extremely accommodating to new words, German grammar and orthography are very conservative. The German supreme court recently vetoed an attempt to rationalise spelling on the grounds it would penalise students brought up to know what was correct.

'Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies'. is published by Faber, priced pounds 8.99.

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