'Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret to style.' -- Mathew Arnold
'If your blood pressure tends to be on the high side and you believe a book about English should should strictly observe every rule of grammar, then be warned: many of the rules will be broken in the following pages, some inadvertently but most in the full knowledge of the offence that may be caused.' -- John Humprys
Why is the English language so bad these days, or rather the misuse of the English language?
I am one of those who growl, grinds their teeth when they hear the English language being mangled, and sadly it is happening more and more often these days, and to make matters worse, it is the so-called native speakers who should know better who are the worst offenders
There are books on style, although one could argue there should not be.
Style should not be about trying to adopt a particular style, rather its should be about speaking and writing clearly.
The exemplar of good style is Paulo Coelho, who has a very simplistic style, but in his simplistic style can be found elegance.
Lost for Words is not a book about style.
It is more a book about the proper use of the English language.
Nor is Lost for Words, a book about English grammar, though John Humprys believes we should know the rules even if only to be able to break them, and bemoans the fact that grammar is no longer taught.
He gives a marvelous example of a hick from the south on a scholarship to Harvard who asks 'He y'all, where is the library at?' When told by a smart arse 'we prefer not to end a sentence with a preposition.' He responds 'Okay. Where's the library at, asshole?'
No, Lost for Words is not an English grammar, for no other reason than John Humphrys is not qualified to write a primer on English grammar.
John Humphrys is a wordsmith who learnt his craft working on a small paper. Lost for Words is an antidote to the sloppy use of words, the failure to express oneself coherently.
In his opening chapter, John Humphrys gives several examples of bad English. Not from the unwashed illiterates, these examples are from professionals, people paid, often highly paid, to communicate, and yet, they write meaningless drivel.
'Each specialist library will be the product of a community of practice of all those interested in knowledge mobilisation and localisation of their domain.'
No, I do not know what this gibberish means either.
Americanisation of the English language quite rightly gets a good kicking.
What is good English? It is probably easier to say what is bad English.
We cannot sit down with a check list. Or rather we can, but what passes our check list will probably be stilted and ugly.
We know good English when we see it. Which is not all that satisfactory.
And for how much longer will we know good English when we see it?. If the majority of people use bad English as the norm, are incapable of expressing themselves, will they be capable of recognising good English when the see it?
Speaking and writing good English is fundamental to understanding. Reading and listening to good English is a pleasure. If we have nothing to say other than to spout meaningless drivel, should we not just shut up?
John Humphrys notes the irony of foreigners learning English having no problems communicating with each other using English, the only time they have problems is with the English themselves.
I often help foreigners with their English, I have to be capable of who they mix with to ensure they do not pick up bad English.
I remember at least two decades ago when the shipyards in the north east were i rapid decline. On the programme were two people discussing the issue, one from Sweden, the other from the north east. The guy from Sweden I could understand, but not the guy from the north east.
Universities, at least the good universities, are finding they are having to introduce literacy classes, though this may be part of an overall fall in standards.
Are myself, John Humphrys and a few academics spouting from our ivory towers, out of touch with the real world?
Two examples my niece gave me of two students who she had to fail shows all is not well.
One, a girl, submitted an essay written entirely in textese! The other, a boy, wrote a delightful essay that failed to answer the question. His response when failed, was that he did not think now he was at university he would have to jump through hoops!
Comments from a French woman show all is not well:
'I worked for thirty years as a translator (French to English) for a French oil company. When I contracted work out, for a long time I was puzzled by the poor standard of the translations by translators who claimed that their mother tongue was English. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that they may have had a good knowledge of French but that they did not know how to write their own language correctly.'
How do we improve our English?
A French-style Academy that defends a minority European language from Anglo-Saxon interlopers would be a non-starter.
One of the reasons that makes both Spanish and English such great languages is that they have no qualms bringing foreign words into the language.
A start could be made with the BBC. Misuse of language in dramas in one thing, but a bare minimum standard for the BBC should be that all of its presenters, newsreaders and other in prominent position are capable of speaking English.
Or will we one day have to rely on foreigners who speak English as the only repository of good English?
A useful companion to Eats, Leaves & Shoots by Lynne Truss. [see BCID 5679066]