Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — The Continuing Insult to the English Language |
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The Continuing Insult to the English Language

In which English-speaking country is the English language falling apart fastest? Britain. Are things as bad in Australia? I hope not. In Britain, in 2006, the Labour government is still trying to fix Britain’s education system, but surely one of the reasons it’s so hard to fix is that most of the people who should know how are themselves the system’s victims, and often don’t even seem to realise it. They need less confidence. Even when they are ready to admit there might be a problem, few of them realise that they lack the language to describe it.

An appropriate sense of desperation has been insufficiently quick to set in. As recently as 2001, one of Britain’s higher educational journals carried a letter signed by more than five hundred university professors, lecturers and teachers of English. They all concurred in a single opinion. “The teaching of grammar and spelling is not all that important.” But every signatory of that letter must have been well aware that a depressing number of his or her students and pupils would have written the sentence another way: “The teaching of grammar and spelling are not all that important.” We can only hope that the number has since decreased. The government would like us to think it has. But the evidence from the media and everyday life suggest that most people would be at a loss to find anything wrong with the first clause of the sentence I am writing now, except, perhaps, the whining irascibility of its tone.

Unless taught better, even a quite bright student will not realise that “the evidence” is the subject, and takes the singular. The “and” linking “media” and “everyday life” makes the noun phrase look like a plural, and so, by attraction, the plural verb is put in automatically. People who have learned English as a second language rarely make the error, because they were taught some grammar along with the vocabulary. But people who have learned English as a first language are increasingly likely to be driven to a plural verb by a plural-sounding singular subject, and precisely because they have learned the language by ear, instead of by prescription. In an infinite variety of forms, the same mistake can be seen in the feature pages of the British quality press every week. (The trash papers, oddly enough, are still relatively immune: perhaps because some of the old unionised sub-editors are still on the case.)

Even the most intellectually upmarket publications are not exempt. Before Fleet Street’s necessary but regrettable disintegration, the editors and subeditors of the quality broadsheets knew how to fix the solecisms of ambitious young journalists who had somehow dodged the school system. But at the very time when the school system itself became a potent incubator for the semi-literate scribbler, the sudden multiplication of culture-page outlets meant that there were no longer enough cultivated editors and subeditors to go round, and by now some of the editors and subeditors are themselves products of the anti-educational orthodoxy by which expressiveness counts above precision. It would, if the two terms were separable. But they aren’t. Beyond a certain point — and the point is reached early — precision is what expressiveness depends on.

Startled by the high-level declaration in 2001 that grammar and spelling were not very important, I began keeping a record, for the first time, of the blunders as they flooded by. I expected the flood to abate. But by now I am sitting on top of the house, and my notes for that crucial year are in my trembling hand. Things had gone haywire a long time before that, of course, but that was the year when the people in charge had the hide to tell us that it didn’t matter. They could hardly have picked up even the most posh of newspapers without encountering evidence that it mattered like mad. On May 12, 2001, someone on the Guardian’s literary page asked “What would Philip Larkin make of a new collection of his work, Further Requirements?” Reasonably all right so far, although the unspecific “a” would have been better as a “the” or a “this”. But then the literary someone answered his own question. “Having selected all the material for Required Writing, in 1983, and then died a mere two years later, one might regard a second volume as de trop...”

The French tag is a claim to clerical expertise that the dangling participle scarcely supports. In 2001, the literary someone has failed to notice that he has composed a sentence in which he dies in 1985. It would be asking too much to expect the literary someone to realise that he is not qualified to read Beatrix Potter, let alone Philip Larkin: but he might at least read his own stuff with his ears open. Evelyn Waugh occasionally dangled a modifier, and Anthony Powell dangled them like a boat fishing for tuna; but a less gifted writer would do best to avoid the practice. All too often, such blunders of mismatched apposition drive the reader to re-work the sentence himself before he can figure out what the writer must mean. When the writer is getting all of the fee, and the reader is doing at least half of the labour, the discrepancy can cause resentment.

In the Observer of 13 May 2001 the aviation correspondent drew on his reserves of metaphor to recreate the Concorde crash near Paris the previous year. The historical present is a bad tense in which to evoke anything, but worse than that is on offer. “Already mortally wounded, flame bleeds uncontrollably from beneath the left wing.” The bleeding flame has everything wrong with it apart from the mixed metaphor: for the aircraft to bleed flame, it would have had to have flame in its veins and arteries, whereas what it had was aviation gasoline. But what really screws the sentence is the dangler, which makes the bleeding flame mortally wounded. He means that the aircraft was mortally wounded. Luckily you know he must mean that, because he has been talking about the aircraft in the previous sentence. So this sentence counts as a mild case. In thousands of more severe cases, from hundreds of other writers, mismatched apposition introduces genuine confusion. “At the age of eight, his father died in an accident” can be construed on its own, after a brief pause for thought. “At the age of eighteen, his father died in an accident” gets you into the area of needing to look elsewhere in the piece to find out what’s going on.

In its best years, Private Eye was written by privately educated junior mandarins who could make a stylistic analysis of yob-speak in order to score satirical points. But in June 2001, issue No.1029 carried the following sentence as straight reportage. “Unheard of before the Tories plucked them from obscurity, cynics suggested that Smith Square couldn’t afford a more established agency...” After looking back, you can deduce that an advertising agency called Yellow M was plucked from obscurity, and not the cynics. A thousand issues before, you would never have had to bother. For a long time, Private Eye’s literary page was free of illiteracy, but now the disease is rampant even there. In No.1042, for 30th November 2001, Andrew Morton’s catchpenny biography of Madonna was given what was obviously meant to be an exemplary wigging, but the reviewer calamitously proved that his grip on the language was no more firm than that of his lumbering victim. “With countless newspaper serialisations and the most fortuitously timed royal death in the history of publishing behind him, any celebrity bum-chum knows that the phone call from Morton is akin to Judas’s 30 pieces of silver.” In whatever way something is timed, it can’t be timed fortuitously: the reviewer means “fortunately”. But the real damage is done by the muffed apposition. It can’t be the celebrity bum-chum that has all that stuff behind him, so it must be Morton. Or so we presume, if we are still reading. But why would we be doing that?

The internet magazines are a rich source of tangled connections. Their contributors are computer literate but that doesn’t make them literate, and indeed seems to ensure the opposite. Here is a sentence from the July, 2001 issue of one of the glossiest internet magazines, the net. (The preference for lower case, incidentally, is already a bad sign about the standard of literacy in the wired world: the illustrative use of upper case amounts to an information system, and to abandon it means being less communicative, not more.) But let’s try again: here is the sentence. “Once up and running the guardians of copyright are really going to have their work cut out to close it down.”

Sad experience has already taught the reader that “it” is more likely than “the guardians of copyright” to be the noun element that will soon be “up and running.” Previous sentences reveal that “it” is the Freenet file-sharing system for pirated feature movies; and that the Freenet system is still in development, and is therefore a likely candidate for being described as not yet up and running. Armed with that information, you can put the meaning of the sentence together. But the saddest thing about the sad experience is your hard-won knowledge that if the author had meant the guardians of copyright to be the subject of description, he would have put the adjectival element in the wrong place by about the same distance: “The guardians of copyright are really going to have their work cut out to close it down, once up and running.”

On the web itself, the standard of English is even worse than in the magazines. The characteristic sentence on the web is transmitted in a nano-second across the world and then slows to a crawl within the reader’s brain, almost always because the grammar is out of whack: vocabulary is abundant, but its analytical deployment is an approximate mess. Efficiency of expression is in inverse proportion to the precision of the machines. It is sadly possible to predict a future in which anybody will be able to transmit any message at any speed but nobody will be able to say anything intelligible.

Especially in those American glossy magazines with pretensions to being investigative, there is a brand of lumpen prose that perpetrates no real howlers but still weighs like lead because the reader continually has to join in the writing. In Vanity Fair for May, 2001, an informative article about Bill Clinton’s abandoned colleague Webb Hubbell evoked the scene when Hubbell was taken back to Little Rock to testify. “He arrived in the city where he had once been mayor handcuffed and shackled.” Unless he was handcuffed and shackled while he was mayor, this sentence is just a mass of raw material waiting for the reader to make something of it. Ostensibly there is nothing much wrong with the grammar, but the word order is out of control; and in English composition, because the language is relatively uninflected, word order and grammar are seldom without connection. The sentence could be mended at the price of one comma: “Handcuffed and shackled, he arrived in the city where he had once been mayor.” The New Yorker’s style police would probably want two commas (“He arrived, handcuffed and shackled, in the city where he had once been mayor”) because the New Yorker likes the noun stated in front of any qualification, in case the reader cancels his subscription while being kept in suspense.

But faulty word order, when it does not introduce confusion, is a secondary issue compared with faulty grammar when it does. You can write charmlessly without insulting the reader. But to write ungrammatically, and not realise it, is to insult the English language. It also removes the possibility of being ungrammatical on purpose: a real impoverishment when it comes to special effects. And in this respect the British are a long way ahead of the Americans: a long way ahead, that is, on the road to perdition.

“Even as Congress was voting,” wrote Anthony Holden in his New York Diary for the Observer, 18 November 2001, “one rogue security-dodger in Atlanta was enough to grind the world’s busiest airport to a prolonged halt...” Anthony Holden once gave me some crucial help on a Washington assignment, so to quote one of his less polished sentences might seem a harsh way to reward him, but I like to think he would do the same for me. The language, as Keats said after being repelled by Milton, should be kept up. Holden is a long-serving professional whose prose is normally as well-calculated as his poker playing, and the Observer section editors were once the best in Fleet Street. But on this occasion both the writer and his editor must have nodded off at once. The original metaphor depends for its effect on evoking the sound of some mechanism grinding to a halt. The metaphor is fatally diluted when something grinds something else to a halt: for one thing, it would be a slow way of stopping an airport.

Usually, when a metaphor slithers into imprecision, it is because the activity from which it was drawn is no longer current practice. Nobody gets the picture, because there is no longer a picture to be got. The expression “loose cannon”, for example, grew from the actuality of an untethered cannon, through its enormous weight, working havoc on the gun-deck of a wooden warship rolling and pitching in heavy weather. For a long time there have been no wooden warships, but the metaphor stayed accurate while everybody who could read was still reading C.S. Forester. Finally some journalist who hadn’t, but who liked the ring of the expression, falsely deduced that the loose cannon caused damage because its barrel was too big for the shot, and so we started hearing about the damage the loose cannon might do when fired.

Similarly, “he shot himself in the foot” originally referred to a soldier in the Great War who hoped that a self-inflicted wound would buy him a ticket out of the trenches. Perhaps because of the irresistible mental image of a Western gunslinger pulling the trigger while getting his revolver out if its holster, the metaphor is nowadays almost universally used to evoke clumsiness rather than cowardice. Sometimes the words within the metaphor change. “Home in” is now often written as “hone in” because the writer thinks “hone” sounds rather grand without knowing what it means: the age has passed when knives needed to be re-ground. Now they can just be replaced.

Examples of deteriorating metaphors could be multiplied. There is seldom any stopping the process after it begins to affect good writers. Bad writers can be mocked, but good writers inexorably spread the word: and if the word is the wrong one, the language changes. As I put the finishing touches to this piece in May 2006, A.A. Gill, the excellent television critic on the Sunday Times, has just used the word “solipsisms” where he obviously meant “solecisms”. Gill is dyslexic, so he had a good excuse. But his editor had no excuse at all. The chances are that he simply didn’t know the difference, and that on the Sunday Times the number of solecisms will inexorably increase, and that they will be called solipsisms if they are noticed at all.

The language has always changed, so to protest looks reactionary. If there were no reactionaries, however, deterioration would become galloping decay. In reality, decay does not gallop, but we all know what a horse is even if we have not ridden one, so everyone realises, so far, that “galloping” is being used metaphorically. When all the horses have gone, “galloping” will just mean “rapid”. After a galloping shave that spattered the bathroom mirror like a loose cannon, he honed in on his car, but when he could not find his keys he was ground to a halt by the awful realisation that he had shot himself in the foot. You know what I mean, even though every component of the sentence has lost touch with its own history. The typical prose of the present has no past. Whether it has a future remains to be seen.

(The Monthly, May 2006)

Photograph by Gillian Mann.

[ Clive reads this essay, hereArchive Editor ]


I owe it to A. A. Gill, a must-read journalist of fluent originality, to admit the possibility that he phoned in his copy on this occasion, and the copytaker misheard a word. Copytakers rarely do, but they are only human, although when they are at their best you would swear that they had powers of telepathy. The wrong word having been written in, the section editor might have thought that Gill was aiming for an extra shade of meaning, and let it stand. On the whole it is better if the section editor trusts the writer’s wording, but a writer caught out in this way will often go up in flames because the system has betrayed him with excessive respect. During my own career in Fleet Street I oscillated between anger at mistakes made on my behalf and mistakes that I had made myself but had been left in. The resulting picture of choleric schizophrenia might have looked less disarming than I thought.