Our poor English language

I wouldn’t be breaking any new ground by saying that anyone who practises a trade should be able to use its tools.

Dr Johnson must be spinning in his grave

A carpenter must know how to wield a file; a violinist, how to finger; a PR executive, how to get a client drunk and laugh at his incoherent jokes.

A writer’s tool of trade is knowing how to use language – its grammar, vocabulary and style – precisely, lucidly and perhaps even elegantly. This is the essential job qualification, and anyone who fails to achieve it can’t be considered a writer.

How one uses those tools is of course a different matter. One chap may write gibberish in stylish English, while another may say profound things in incomprehensible jargon.

But that only means that the second chap is clever and the first one isn’t. It doesn’t change the fact that, of the two, only the first one is a writer.

As an aside, such dichotomies are rather rare. If God in his munificence gives a man something to say, he usually gives him the means to say it.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. That’s why I’m always suspicious when a musician is described as a mindless virtuoso. Nine times out of ten he’s either not so mindless or else not so virtuosic.

I’m not in the mood to wax philosophical today, but such unity of form and content could conceivably be traced to the great Christian synthesis of body and soul that lies at the foundation of our civilisation.

But getting back to the more mundane matter of putting words together, one can’t help noticing that this art is suffering tremendous attrition throughout the Anglophone world.

Up until some 31 years ago, the only periodicals I had been reading were American. Then, having moved to London, I went cold turkey and switched to predominantly British output (with some smattering of Russian and French).

However, when I was researching my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick, I went back to American papers – and was stunned. The level of journalism had dropped not just several notches, but all the way down to the floor.

Reasoned arguments had been replaced with hysterical rants; stylistic elegance, with censorious humdrum prose; precise choice of words with a widespread use of what Mark Twain described as the right word’s second cousin thrice removed; judicious use of irony and light-hearted idiom, with strained attempts at mock-folksiness.

Lest you might think this is an exercise in America-bashing, exactly the same regress is observable in British journalism, if mostly at its popular and especially broadcast end.

When I first settled in Britain, one could see words misused not by professional wielders of language, but only by the general public. I recall earning rebukes, if not outright enmity, from my colleagues by pedantically pointing out the difference between appraise and apprise, affect and effect, masterful and masterly or willy-nilly and at will.

They would get defensive and explain, correctly but irrelevantly, that languages are a means of communication, and they develop. My reply to the first truism was that using words in their incorrect meaning hampers rather than improves communication.

As to development, the unshakable belief, nay creed, of modernity is that every change can only be for the better. This presumption of progress is simply wrong, and it certainly doesn’t work in language.

English has indeed developed over centuries like perhaps no other language on earth, but this development has always been vectored towards enlargement and greater precision. In due course English streamlined its grammar and developed a bigger vocabulary than any other European language, three times as big as Russian for example.

I’m not going to delve into the nature of this process, and anyway History of the English Language was the only exam I had to resit in my university days. Suffice it to say that a major factor was extensive borrowing from other languages, such as Latin and French.

Its tempo and volume were mostly controlled by educated, multilingual people, such as the team put together by Lancelot Andrewes to produce the authorised translation of the Bible, which remains an unrivalled exemplar of English prose.

Andrewes and his colleagues had heated arguments about every word, seeking perfect precision, power and elegance – and unfailingly attaining it. But the arguments were conducted in Latin, the quotidian language of intellectual discourse in those days.

Street language affected linguistic developments too, but only when the literate, and typically literary, folk implicitly accepted and endorsed it. Thus some lexical and grammatical colloquialisms forced their way into standard usage and some didn’t, but even the successful ones did have to fight hard.

All that changed with the arrival of our ideologically egalitarian, progress-happy, comprehensively educated (that is, universally ignorant) modernity. Style manuals and grammar books stopped being prescriptive and became merely descriptive.

The underlying assumption, these days voiced by Oliver Kamm and other permissive gurus, is that anything the people say is correct because the people say it.

The revolt of the masses described by Ortega y Gasset now has in its crosshairs not just social and political hierarchies, but also cultural ones – and consequently the language. And, with practice, their hit rate is improving exponentially.

These days it’s impossible to open a newspaper without seeing something – lots of somethings – that affects sensitive ears like one piece of glass scratching another.

Here are just three examples from the past couple of days, but I could give you twenty if I weren’t afraid of presuming on your patience.

Writing about a man who always brags about his achievements, one writer wished that, if his subject exhibited a bit more hubris, he’d achieve much more.

The sentence didn’t make sense to me, so I reread it to make sure I followed. Then I realised that the writer thought hubris meant humility – an easy mistake to make: after all the words do share the first two letters.

No serious paper would have let that malapropism through at the time I first came to live in England, never mind 100 years ago.

Then there was a news announcer talking about a witness to a crime: “As she was sat in her Audi…” One must have a tin ear and no culture whatsoever to choose that ugly usage over simply sat or was sitting – the comment in the previous paragraph applies.

And today’s paper has caressed my ear with this headline: “Brewster [Liverpool FC striker] will get given chances this season”. How about will get chances? Or, if his chances can only come courtesy of others, will be given chances?

My preference would be to say “Klopp [Brewster’s manager] will give Brewster chances this season”, but anything would work better than the unsightly monstrosity actually used.

Don’t nobody speak proper these days? One wonders where they was brung up.

2 thoughts on “Our poor English language”

  1. “English streamlined its grammar and developed a bigger vocabulary than any other European language,”

    The average person knows only about a thousand words and gets by their whole life quite well with such a vocabulary?

  2. Careful mr B!

    I’m on side with the conservative thrust of your defence of our language, but I think English is as successful as it is precisely because we do not have an académie anglaise and users are free to express themselves how they like within its elastic bounds.

    ‘I was sat’ is understandable – given that we don’t have prenominals, only reflexive pronouns and ‘to sit’ is an implied reflexive – otherwise it is ‘to seat’.

    I suspect it will, over time, go the way of ‘a norange’ and ‘a napron’ – both nouns changing to ‘orange’ and ‘apron’ – and split infinitives as becoming, through common usage, ‘acceptable English’.

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