Concern for the English language is one thing but diehard pedantry is another. It seems that Stephen Fry has started shouting at the radio when Radio Four listeners write to or email Feedback to complain about grammatical errors and solecisms they’ve heard on the network. There are certainly more mistakes than there used to be, particularly in news. Fry has a point about absolute pedantry but he gives the impression that for him anything goes — which for someone who speaks and writes impeccably is rather strange. He told the presenter Roger Bolton that ‘language is alive and there are no grammatical rules that make real sense’ and that ‘we all occasionally say things like bestest [Oh, no, we don’t], it’s a reinforcing kind of way of speaking and, yes, it’s not mathematically correct but then language isn’t and shouldn’t be’.
Of his various gripes about the pedants who see language set in concrete, he’s right about the obsession with not ending sentences with a preposition, as schoolteachers of old always insisted, rather like the grammarians’ ancient mantra that sentences should never begin with ‘And’ or ‘But’. With the outdated preposition rule, some sentences look clumsy if it’s stuck to doggedly.
He didn’t mention the split infinitive, which can drive people into a lather but which in my view is often perfectly all right; Fowler was quite relaxed about it and if it was good enough for him…What worries me about Fry’s attitude, though, is that it implies that anything is acceptable as language changes naturally through usage. Rules have to be flexible, of course, and language does change, often for the better, but a certain vigilance must be maintained to prevent a descent into a total sloppiness of speech, which I know some would like to see. Others would dearly love the ugly glottal stop to take root on Radio Four; occasionally one hears a presenter who clearly thinks it’s cool to use it. In fact, it just makes them sound ignorant.
Television news has never bothered much with grammar, but radio news once did. I wonder if a reporter today would be taken aside by a sub-editor, as I was, and told my script contained a hanging participle. I hadn’t spotted it and hastily corrected it — it wasn’t that long ago, either. Fry did relate a story told him by Alistair Cooke, who had used the phrase ‘from whence’ in an article in what was then the Manchester Guardian. C.P. Scott, the editor, summoned him to his office and said, ‘Young man, I see here “from whence”. Tell me what “whence” means.’ Cooke replied, ‘Well, it means from where.’ ‘Exactly, so you’ve written from from where, a neoplasm, a tautology, a redundancy, quite unnecessary.’ Cooke told him boldly that Defoe, Fielding, Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen had all used the phrase ‘from whence’. ‘Well,’ Scott thundered, ‘they wouldn’t have done had they been writing for the Manchester Guardian!’
John Timpson’s death last weekend at the age of 77 leaves only Robert Robinson alive from that period of full-time Today presenters. Listening to some of the clips of his interviews broadcast in various programmes, I’d forgotten how polite he’d been on air. Sir John Nott told Today on Monday morning that he was always courteous. Some thought this was a defect in a more aggressive age and not enough to counter the huge increase in political spinning or lying, but the Timpson approach often produced more revealing results, though I’m not sure it would work with the Blair government. What, though, did Jeremy Paxman’s spectacularly bad interview with David Cameron on Newsnight last week tell us? Nothing, as Cameron was barely allowed two sentences at a time without interruption. With Paxman, you’re not even allowed to tell the truth, let alone lie.
Although Timpson began with Jack de Manio and then Robinson, his longest partnership was with Brian Redhead. People have referred to the chemistry between them, but I must confess I never saw it and I worked with both, presenting Today with either one of the two for a stint. Redhead was something of an edgy intellectual poseur while Timpson was unpretentious and droll. I don’t think they really liked each other much, their personalities were too different, but they did complement each other on air: Redhead, a compulsive talker, babbling through programme pauses; Timpson reading out a humorous item or misprint from newspapers — his favourite source was the Telegraph’s old Peterborough column — or parish magazines. Timpson always resented the fact that as a freelance Redhead was paid much more than him. The reason was that for years Timpson stayed on the staff at a graded salary, complete with a BBC reporters’ car, which he kept from the days of actually being a reporter. Perhaps it was insecurity that prevented him from going on contract and earning more; BBC managements find it easier to drop freelances than they do staff people; you just don’t renew their contracts. Of the two, though, I would guess that Timpson was more popular with the Today audience.