Wot not to say

Lost for Words: the mangling and manipulating of the English language

John Humphrys <em>Hodder & S

This is an ideal Christmas present for all those who care about the English language or who lament the long absence of formal grammar from our education system.

I once asked a headmaster of a primary school what effect the "literacy hour" was having and received an enthusiastic reply. It was terrific, he bubbled, because all the teachers were learning grammar. I was reminded of that comment when I came upon this example of abysmal ignorance in Humphrys's book: "I'm sure you could of written it alot neater."

That sentence was written not by "a drunken Latvian whose English lessons finished 30 years ago, but by a primary school teacher at the bottom of an eight-year-old's essay". As Humphrys writes: God help every child in her class.

This book is not just a treatise on the correct use of English. It is also a bitter protest against the gobbledegook and impenetrable nature of much of the material produced by civil servants, academia and the business world. The examples of incomprehensible English, ambiguous meanings and deliberate manipulation of our language abound; they are sometimes shocking, sometimes entertaining and sometimes puzzling. Politicians come in for a predictable drubbing, but so, too, do journalists and many an eminent person.

Yet I would like to interview Humphrys about this book because he cannot really make up his mind where he stands. Almost every page contains a complaint about some rule of grammar being broken, but more than once he tells us that rules are dispensable. He begins sentences with conjunctions and ends them with prepositions, saying he can see nothing wrong with such practices, but fulminates against split infinitives. If I, a politician, were to fulminate against tax rises but then went and raised taxes, he, a journalist, would take me to task. So I cannot resist pointing out that I found a split infinitive in this book. Tee hee!

There is also some dreadful grammar. The class should now turn to page 138. The next to go is tenses. Ugh! Aaarrrgh!

Afraid of being thought of as an old- fashioned authoritarian, which would never do for a journalist on the Today programme, Humphrys tells us that it is not necessary to understand the difference between nominative and accusative or to be able to identify a gerund. Oh, yes, it is, John, even if you call them something more modern such as subject and object and verbal noun. That is exactly how you avoid the confusion between "I" and "me" ("Me and Michael work together"; "Tony was rude to Michael and I"), which you so deplore.

The reason Humphrys is so afraid to insist that rules are important is probably a fear that he might then be caught out in some gross error. However, this is like a priest saying there is no such thing as a sin for fear that he might actually commit one. The truth is that we all break grammatical rules, sometimes deliberately for dramatic effect or fluidity of prose, sometimes accidentally. We all have pet rules from which we seldom err, but one man's pet rule is another man's pedantry.

Most people also resent changes of meaning in particular words. "Gay" used to mean "bright and cheerful", and now means "homosexual". My own bete noire is the use of "decimate" for "devastate". If you decimate something, then you leave 90 per cent of it intact; but this is an argument with common usage that I acknowledge to be lost. Humphrys's pet hate is the substitution of "disinterested" for "uninterested". That would be in my top ten, too. Perhaps some enterprising television producer should announce a national competition to find the nation's most hated misused word.

This is a serious book written in a humorous way and an angry book full of kindly thoughts. Humphrys observes modern trends with a keen but often tolerant eye. Yet it is also a frightening book, in which the wiles of politicians, advertisers, journalists and even academics dance before the reader's eyes until we ask: "Yes, John, but what can we actually do about it?"

The author does not propose any remedies. Perhaps, to use a modern idiom he hilariously mocks, he doesn't do remedies.

Ann Widdecombe's novel Father Figure will be published in January (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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