Michael Vestey

Anything goes

Anything goes

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 With the outdated preposition rule, some sentences look clumsy if it’s stuck to doggedly.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.

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