readers will have noticed regular language columns and occasional letters
to the editor bewailing the state of modern English usage. Their writers
are part of a brotherhood whose mission is to keep the language
Yes, they're male, as Henry Fowler himself appreciated as far back as 1926
(Modern English Usage):
especially, are as much possessed by the didactic impulse as women by the
course, with such a distinguished forbear, it's no wonder that these
pedagogical fellows will, with little provocation, invoke their hero
passionately. You've seen it — the Fowler-would-turn-in-his-grave
lament. And in Fowler's prolonged and unavoidable absence, they cry,
someone with authority had better step in and stop the rot, preferably the
unlike the Germans briefly under Hitler and the French in perpetuity since
1635, neither the Americans nor the English (let alone the Australians)
have ever been able to bring themselves to establish government-funded
language protection institutes.
way of compensation, we are favoured with a steady stream of handbooks on
all that is incorrect and inadmissible with the use of this word or that
syntax, or this pronunciation or that spelling. And while we await the
next such publication we can be sure that our ever vigilant band of
language custodians are there ready with their pens and email to besiege
newspaper editors with details of the latest object of their loathing.
should know. I'm a recovering language dogmatist from way back. They say
that at birth I clapped my hands on hearing a doctor say, "It's a ‘diftheria’
epidemic, nurse, not 'diptheria'."
Primary School I once got caught at recess expounding to a bored group of
classmates the precise difference between metonymy and synecdoche, with
copious examples drawn from 19th century English poets. Then, in High
School after a year of Latin and French I added German to my obsessions.
That poor German teacher. In my first week I drove him mad with continual
questions on the exceptions to the gender rules for common nouns. He tore
his hair out with frustration, went bald and then went bush, but not
before finding time to write in a term report "Tends to overemphasise
all in the past, though. For the last 25 years I've been a member of
Pedants Anonymous. “Just take it one datum at a time,” they taught me,
and my doctor says it’s working. Except that once in a while I feel this
urge . . .
to my cravings in a moment. First we’d better look at the history of
English language commentary, because one’s internal struggle has
the 16th and 17th centuries English was treated descriptively by
grammarians and dictionary makers. But in the 18th century (thank you, S.
Johnson and Company), what contemporary linguists call prescriptivism
became the order of the day, and this attitude lasted until the early 20th
century. Needless to say, the prescriptive approach imposes rules not only
on what is to be prescribed, but also what is proscribed.
the second half of the 20th century descriptivism had regained ascendancy,
under the influence of modern linguistics. So these days the job for
grammarians and dictionary makers is to record the facts of language
diversity, and not to preach or legislate.
to the descriptive approach persists however, as we have seen. Indeed,
when the going gets rough the battle is compared in ideological terms to a
political conflict, with the armies of elitism and conservatism on the one
side ranged against the forces of radicalism and liberalism on the other.
you, I’d have thought that the difference is psychological rather than
political, more a clash of temperaments (which politics itself may be
anyway, unconsciously). But that’s another story.
lessons aside, doctor, how can I cope with my relapses into language usage
on. Should I reluctantly accept some annoyances, perhaps, so as to
concentrate my strength on challenging real abominations?
that, doctor? I’m on the right track, now, am I? You reckon I should be
trying to preserve what Fowler called a “pedantry scale”?
if there are degrees of language misuse, how to rank them?
with a category list? O.K.
are words mispronounced, e.g. “controversy”, “aitch”.
are plurals used in the singular (“criteria”, “media”).
are invented words, too, like “irregardless”.
are words misspelt, as in many signs graced with a spurious apostrophe (“Fresh
Banana’s”, “Latest Video’s”).
there are grammatical indiscretions, “between you and I” or “different
than”, for example.
forgetting meanings currently attached to words like “pristine”, “protagonist”
or “quantum” that are offensive to some of us.
infringements all of them, but now I’m starting to realise that there
are far more disagreeable things being done to the language. After all,
English words have been shifting in meaning for over a thousand years,
often in the direction of literal to figurative. Think of the history of
what “oblivious” once meant, for example, or “toilet”, “potpourri”
say nothing of grammar, spelling and pronunciation changes.
more critical offences I’m referring to here occur in the unthinking and
lazy confusion of two similar words, each with its own valuable set of
meanings; in short, malapropisms.
abound on radio and TV, places where one of the tasks is to communicate,
too. And not just from sporting commentators either, who frequently have
to talk off the cuff, and fast, (though they needn’t try to sound so
highbrow at the same time). This sort of thing:
disinterested versus uninterested
flaunt versus flout
home versus hone
imply versus infer
militate versus mitigate
oversee versus oversight
supine versus prostrate versus prostate.
is required is the habit of paying all words the compliment of respecting
and nothing could be more peculiar to any pair of words than their
separate meanings, surely.
is there really a “serviceable distinction” (Fowler again) to be
found among the various types of errors, or am I just imagining it?
be very interested in your views. Do you agree for instance that
malapropisms like “hone in on” for “home in on” are more to be
shunned than, say, the use of “pristine” to mean “pure”?
opinions to be expressed in the true Bikwil spirit, of course —
restrained and minimally negative.