Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Does “proper English” matter?

In a recent post, I made a few passing smart-Alec remarks about The Irish Times Stylebook’s assertion that lady thespians should be referred to as “female actors” rather than “actresses”. Quite a few readers ignored the main thrust of the …

Sun, Aug 22, 2010, 21:49

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In a recent post, I made a few passing smart-Alec remarks about The Irish Times Stylebook’s assertion that lady thespians should be referred to as “female actors” rather than “actresses”. Quite a few readers ignored the main thrust of the post and laid into this dictum with uninhibited gusto. The odd comment supported the stylebook’s strategy, but the consensus was that this was Political Correctness Gone Mad. It reminds us of those straight bananas the EU is always forcing us to eat. It recalls all those South London borough councils that banned the singing of Baa Baa Blacksheep.

Other correspondents decided to pick up on further eccentricities within the paper’s linguistic rule book. What’s with this business of “media” being treated as singular noun? And so forth.

A certain degree of consistency is desirable when editing a newspaper. It is, thus, a good idea to have a few rules in place. What, however, of the world beyond Tara Street? Perhaps all we should ask of writers is that they be clear and unambiguous in their prose. After all, the English language — even in its most formal incarnations — is awash with words that were once part of the vulgar vernacular. The rules on what is right and what is wrong change from decade  to decade. Does it matter if the proverbial grocer includes an unnecessary apostrophe when notifying us of his wares? Let’s be honest. When you read “potato’s”, you don’t really think that some tuber is in possession of an unidentified entity (though, if you were writing in to The Irish Times’ “letters page”, you would, almost certainly, pretend otherwise.)

This is certainly the view of Mr Stephen Fry. You’d expect Viscount Stephen to be pernickety about such things, but in a recent podcast he claimed that he cared not a whit about the vegetable seller and his wandering punctuation point.

More surprising still, Kingsley Amis, an unforgiving sort of conservative in later years, was reasonably easygoing about certain supposedly unshakable rules relating to grammar and syntax. He was prepared, for example, to happily forgive the use of split infinitives. (Do you see what I did there? Ho, ho!) He did not object to “however” appearing at the start of a sentence.  He even allowed that, in all but the most formal prose, editors need not insist on “whom” as the object of a sentence. He has a point. If some lesser person dares to growl at you in a disrespectful fashion, you will seem like a buffoon if you retort: ”To whom do you think you’re talking?” (In this example we are also, you will note, working hard at drawing the preposition away from the end of the sentence — yet another regulation that Sir Kingsley felt no need to enforce.)

Amis’s observations on usage appear in a superb book entitled (rather awkwardly) The King’s English. Somewhere in the opening passages, he explains that, when considering the use of English, most people break its speakers down into two classes: Berks and Wankers. The imagined citizen defines these categories thus:

“Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

“Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them, the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.”

Amis’s point, I suppose, is that we should strike a happy medium between respecting the language and being a priggish oaf. Good advice, you’d have to agree. Then again, there are certain “misuses” of English that, notwithstanding Mr Fry’s pleading, drive me to fits of blinding, spitting rage. When a writer wonders at the “enormity” of the universe, I know, of course, that he means its hugeness rather than its monstrous wickedness, but I still find the maltreated word an affront to all that’s decent. The most annoying blunder of all, however — more annoying even than “disinterest” for “lack of concern”, a usage that is fast becoming acceptable — is surely the use of “cliché” as an adjective. Where the hell did this come from?  A matter of minutes ago, everyone seemed to know that this word was a noun and they treated it accordingly. Now, you can’t access a comment board without reading something like “This movie is really cliché.” Is it? Is it really? Is it also really comedy and really biopic?

Well, at least, I can relax safe in the knowledge that no usage guide will, in the next decade at least, accept this particular linguistic atrocity. Hang on, somebody has just pointed me to a recent online entry in Webster’s Dictionary. Lurking at the bottom of the page, we find the following horrid addition: “cliche: adjective“.

Oh, what’s the bloody point?