Thursday, September 09, 2010

The grumbling appendix of prescriptivism

"The teaching of English has left most pupils with nothing but a random and often erroneous understanding of the components of language." So began John Humphrys on this morning's Today programme on Radio 4* as he introduced an item about a man he clearly admires, Simon Heffer.

The opening quotation comes from Heffer's new book, Strictly English, published by Random House (I'm sure Heffer would be appalled at the fairly recent semantic change random has undergone.) and which Heffer's very own Daily Telegraph has been serialising over the last three weeks (part one, part two, part three).

In his book, and in the Radio 4 interview, Heffer SLAMS the teaching of grammar, RAGES against a generation of linguistic illiterates and BLASTS the exaggerated language of tabloids. He's quite angry, it's fair to say.

But he's also very big on "correctness", asserting on a number of occasions that we are judged by how we speak and write. This is no doubt true, but who is doing the judging? Heffer mostly. He comes from a long line of prescriptivists (one of whom is John Humphrys himself, whose books have recently appeared in extract in A level exam questions on Language Change) who see a general decline in literacy standards wherever they look. If it's not the tabloid press, then it's teachers wot carnt spell. And if it's not gangster rap, then it's those people who use literally when they don't really mean literally. He's literally frothing at the mouth over that one.

Clearly, some people do have problems switching between registers, while others aren't really that clear on word etymologies, and it's probably fair to say that, for a minority of young people, formal written English is not a very familiar or comfortable variety to use, but it's always been that way. This generation (or the last, or even mine) is not any worse than the others.

One point raised by Heffer in the Radio 4 interview is about the distinction between shall and will. He says, "To say I will do something is a statement of resolution: you're saying I am absolutely determined to do it. To say I shall do something is a statement of simple futurity: that it's going to happen. It's I will, you shall, he shall". Frankly, who cares?

Recent research by linguists suggests that this shall/will distinction is becoming increasingly redundant, with usage of shall falling between 40-50% over the last 30 years. Perhaps we now have other ways of expressing "resolution" and "futurity", and the rather antiquated "rule" - dreamt up by "experts" who based their rules on their own usage, funnily enough - is dying out. It's like the appendix: no one really knows what it does and it sometimes grumbles and causes us pain. A bit like Heffer and his ilk?

*Listen to it on i-Player here (from 2:36.44 - 2:41.38)
and thanks to Julia H for tipping me off about this great interview.