Mon 18 November 2019
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The language police are a force for good
Since I shall spend the rest of this article attacking this book, I should say at once that it is well worth reading. It is crisply written, amusing, informative and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the English language and its history should read it.

But it tells you a lot about a book to identify whom the author sees as the enemy. Henry Hitchings has one enemy, and whenever its troops appear in view, his normal good humour deserts him. He divides people who interest themselves in language into descriptivists and prescriptivists. The former observe how language actually is, and record its migrations, mating habits, habitat and so on, like birdwatchers. He approves of them. The latter say how language should be, and endeavour to make rules – even, sometimes, laws – about what is proper. Mr Hitchings hates the prescriptivists.

How he turns his sarcasm upon those who have tried to establish what is "correct". How he excoriates the "grumblers, fault-finders, quibblers and mudslingers". How gleefully he points out that those who try to regulate, elevate, preserve or purify the language are "really" acting out of political motives or expressing, in their various distastes, "a reaction that is pointedly social", rather than linguistic. Grammatical martinets, he says, often know little about grammar, "But they like the idea of grammar because they see in its structures a model of how they would like society to be".

In a way, Mr Hitchings is right. Language always changes – none more so than English – and it is owned by all its users, not by any priest, politician or professor. The word language derives from the Latin word for a tongue: everyone has a tongue, and we are all more or less free to wag it as we please. Anyone who states that a usage is eternally correct is likely to be wrong. It is untrue, for example, that it is necessarily bad to start a sentence with And. The King James Bible, 400 years old this year, frequently and triumphantly does so.

But in attacking the people whom he sees as pedants, Mr Hitchings is picking an easy target and, in modern times, a peripheral one. The problem with English today is not the stern, punitive schoolmaster who wants to pin language down as a collector kills his butterflies. All those begowned men whom I am just old enough to remember who shouted things like " Get only means obtained" have long been expelled from the classroom. It is the opposite school of thought which now prevails – the idea that any way of writing, spelling, punctuating or speaking is equally "valid", and that dialects, ethnic minority usage and slang are more equally valid than anything "received", "standard", or traditional. This doctrine, which is just as "prescriptive" as what it attacks, causes ignorance and confusion.

For the rest of the article

The Telegraph
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