Johnny Grimond

Not going forward

This is a brave book, quixotic even.

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Strictly English

Simon Heffer

Random House, pp. 322, £

This is a brave book, quixotic even. Simon Heffer, an associate editor of the Daily Telegraph, believes English has a settled framework of grammar that is today often ignored. He deplores the growth in numbers of those who know nothing of correct usage and good style. Now he means to educate them.

Every one of us who gasps at the use of English in the papers each morning or harrumphs on turning on the radio will find much to applaud. In recent days I have recoiled at ‘Me and my family will do well’ (in The Times), ‘Sweden PM wins second term’ (Financial Times), ‘the deficit will reduce rapidly’ (FT again) and ‘in practice, they fall between cracks’ (International Herald Tribune). Every reference to the Liberal Democrat Party makes me wince. ‘Democrat’ is a noun. The adjective is ‘democratic’. Nothing, however, brings out the crotchet in me quite as much as the daily references on the radio, especially lofty-browed Radio 3, to ‘London’s Wigmore Hall’, ‘London’s South Bank’, ‘Edinburgh’s Usher Hall’ and so on, where the possessive apostrophe s is being made to do the work of the word ‘in’ rather than ‘of’.

But are we right to mind so much? My suspicion is that most of us believe that good English is what we learnt as children. A glance at the dictionary shows that the modern meanings of many common words go back no more than a couple of hundred years, if that. What pains us is unlikely to pain our children.

Heffer says he recognises that the language must change, but still seems to believe we must hang on to what we have and the way we have it now or, better still, had it yesterday. He bases his defence of ‘correct’ grammar on the need for logic and the absence of ambiguity in language. Yet none of the examples above gives rise to any real illogicality or ambiguity. It was pretty clear what was happening even to those unfortunates who were falling between the cracks. Almost any change, though, seems to make Heffer uneasy. He is, for instance, much exercised by the intransitive use of ‘warn’, a solecism that also used to wrinkle noses at the Economist. I find it difficult to be sniffy. Heffer says the logic of holding to the original use is impeccable. Not to me. The intransitive seems to fill a gap rather neatly, which is why, of course, people so often adopt it.

The difficulty for self-styled stylists like Mr Heffer and me (I think he would prefer ‘such as Mr H and I’) is not just that English is constantly changing but that its readiness to change makes it such a useful, vigorous and enjoyable language. Its adaptability, its capacity for absorbing words from other tongues and its very promiscuity are all strengths. It scorns the codification and regulation that pompous academicians try to impose on French and Spanish. It is the language of free-traders, not protectionists.

When harrumphers get cross, therefore, they should ask themselves whether the infraction they dislike weakens the language, results in the loss of a useful meaning or introduces an ugliness. Often it does, but not when we use ‘warn’ without an object, write ‘onto’, not ‘on to’, or get in a muddle about ‘will’ and ‘shall’, a topic to which Heffer gives three pages. Pedants might object to his use of the transitive form of ‘agree’, or to his complaint about the transitive use of ‘task’, blamed on American influence but adopted by English authors from Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte.

A better target would be sentences that begin ‘There is…’ or ‘There are…’, a flabby construction much favoured by Heffer. (‘There is alarming scope for participles to go wrong’, ‘There can be a potential problem when the noun that must take the possessive is long and complicated…’ or ‘There are verbs where a following infinitive is mandatory…’) Heffer’s prose may be grammatically correct, but it is seldom crisp.

Most of the violence inflicted on English is not the work of greengrocers who misplace their apostrophes or teenagers who split their infinitives, but of bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and academics. Too many such people are either self-important and flatulent or lacking in self-confidence and anxious therefore to make their utterances seem weightier than they are. Both types are prone to using euphemisms, jargon, acronyms, five long words when two short would do, politically correct flannel, worn-out phrases, trendy neologisms and clichés, clichés, clichés. All these get in the way of clarity of expression and something called the truth.

Good luck to Simon Heffer in trying to hold the line against the misuse of ‘enormity’ and ‘alibi’. But the real villains are the ‘human resources’ and ‘going forward’ brigade. Even a transitive warning is too good for them.