On the last day of June a sad event in the long and noble history of the English language is scheduled to take place: the Queen’s English Society will formally be wound up. Forty years of trying to raise the awareness of fellow Englishmen about the misuse of apostrophes and semicolons, the overuse of the exclamation mark and the insidious effect of American spell checks — to say nothing of texting and twittering — have seen the ranks of active supporters thin to vanishing point. Only 22 members came to the recent annual meeting, and ten of those were committee members.
As the society’s chairman, Rhea Williams, said in a not very elegant statement: “Things change, people change. People care about different things. If you look at lots of societies, lots of them are having problems… People don’t want to join societies like they used to.” (Shouldn’t that be “as they used to”?) And she is perfectly correct about that, although a few years spent plugged into the internet have taught me that there is a multitude of people who espouse the QES cause unofficially and like nothing better than to point out the spelling and grammatical errors in other people’s online comments — and even, sad to say, journalists’ articles.
(In defence of the profession I must add that many of the mistakes one finds in the otherwise polished prose of a publication such as MercatorNet come from speed rather than ignorance; under pressure of time, proofreading becomes a luxury. Wasn’t The Guardian, a leading English newspaper, once fondly known as the “Garudian” because of all its typos? And do not forget, dear reader, that one person’s bad grammar is another’s stylistic innovation, designed to keep you awake.)
At the same time there are legions who will cry “Good job!” at the demise of the QES and scoff at the very idea of unchanging rules. A good number of the 335 comments on the Guardian’s report about this event are evidently along those lines. Says one: Doing anything by the rules just isn’t the done thing any longer. Anyway, who needs rules when they have predictive texting? Who even needs words, let alone sentences, when they have text-speak. Grammar? OMG! Punctuation? LOL! Spelling? UMBK!
(I know, the use of “they” in the above sentences is ungrammatical, but the alternative is horrible: an encounter with the gender police over the use of “he”, or “she”, with the prospect of being forced into that abominable compromise “he or she” or, even worse, “s/he”.)
But let me come to the point: in the absence of the QES are we to have a standard for written English, or not? Who will arbitrate between “different to” and “different from” (let us not even consider here the strange Americanism “different than”!) Who will point out the egregious error in the sentence, “Your wrong!”? Who will reprimand the profligate users of exclamation points? Are such delicate tasks to be left entirely to Microsoft? Or Apple? Or Samsung? Perish the thought!
And yet, and yet… the task of prescribing standards is a high calling and one that should not be undertaken lightly. Few of us could sustain the rigour required for modelling the English language in all its linguistic perfection, not to mention deep obscurity. Who would never use the preterite instead of the past perfect tense, or change case after the verb “to be”, or use “owing to” when “due to” is required?
The QES itself has been found sadly deficient in its self-appointed role. Provoked by a remark on the society’s website belittling his profession (“We believe that descriptive linguistics, which declares anything anybody said or wrote to be ‘correct’ caters to mass ignorance under the supposed aegis of democracy and political correctness.” – You can see why he was mad at them) descriptive linguistics scholar Geoffrey K Pullum turned a ruthless eye on the site’s content and came up with rich pickings.
A malformed use of “neither … nor”; passive constructions; punctuation errors; a missing co-ordinate; wordy officialese; use of “anyone” instead of “someone”; even, even, a split infinitive — Pullum found them all in one short paragraph describing the society’s mission. The press release about the society’s winding up yielded another batch of purists’ no-no’s, including a missing verb, a sentence beginning with a conjunction, and a missing full stop. The last straw for Pullum, a British-American, was QES’ insistence that Britons should shun the word “sidewalk” and stick to “pavement”. “We’ll adopt such American nouns as we damn well please, OK?” he frothed.
Such are the passions that can still be aroused over English usage. And such are the perils of prescriptivism, even in the largely benign form advocated by the Queen’s English Society. But surely they are right in insisting that a line should be drawn, across which no-one should be allowed to step with impunity.
Models of enforcement are not lacking. On YouTube there’s Smosh grammar police (somewhat coarse and violent but they get the message across about “they’re” and “there”, and have been viewed more than 5.7 million times — which tells you something). And the rather too realistic Grammar Nazis (over 4.8 million views) whose representative gives a lesson on the dangling participle that you will never forget. (Actually, I am informed that the latter is a parody of a scene in a movie called, ahem, Inglorious Basterds (sic)). If nothing else these videos may make grammar appealing to boys.
It only remains to decide where the line is to be drawn. Some candidates:
Ending a sentence with a preposition? Too bad; Winston Churchill, allegedly, put paid to that little hang-up umpteen years ago with the expostulation: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” Or something a bit stronger.
The split infinitive? Sorry, but that’s been a lost cause ever since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave it a heroic gloss: “In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before – and thus was the Empire forged.”
Use of “it’s” instead of “its”, or vice versa? Well, good luck with that one — its going take more than an army of grammar nazis to make a dent in the wall of ignorance about the apostrophe and it’s vital importance to civilisation as we know it.
Hmmm. It’s all looking a bit difficult. And, after all, it is meaning that counts — the battle of ideas and not the clash of participles. That is what we stake our reputation on in this publication and, who knows, one day MercatorNet might be an oracle of grammar and style as well. We’re working on it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
PS: There are some cunningly placed grammatical errors in this piece. A free copy of the QES Punctuation Guide for anyone who can correctly identify five.