The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities

The UK Times ran a couple of articles recently about the Queen’s English Society and its desire to be the official English language academy. Such an academy would “set an accepted standard of good English” in our “hectic, modern, digitalised world”. English is being corrupted, the QES assures us. It needs to be protected from the ignorant masses — the marauding, illiterate vandals at the gate who would ruin civilisation with their ill-judged punctuation and their non-standard spelling and pronunciation. The QES especially blames emails and text messages for the perceived degradation, but this notion has been convincingly discredited by David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost linguistic authorities, so I’ll not dwell on it.

The second piece in the Times presents arguments (from “experts”) for and against the need for an academy of English. Rhea Williams, acting chairman* of the society, protests that “people also don’t seem to know about tenses any more, for example, you hear ‘we was’ a lot.” But “we was” isn’t ungrammatical — it’s a dialectal variant. The QES seems to have decided that Standard English — or rather, QES members’ ideas of it — is the only proper form of English, and that variations are necessarily inferior, if not abominable. This bias is characteristic of organised peevologists. Mrs Williams** laments: “Successive governments have changed the rules about teaching grammar in schools.” For which I read, perhaps unfairly, “Who let the linguists out?”

The front page of the QES’s extensive website proclaims: “Good English matters — the world uses it — we must keep it safe from declining standards.” For the sake of my readers’ eyes I’ve removed the full capitalisation and replaced the ungrammatical hyphens with dashes. (I don’t enjoy nitpicking except when the prose in question comes from sanctimonious nitpickers. The aforelinked web page, incidentally, makes the QES seem like a religious cult; what’s inside only strengthens the resemblance.) Throughout the website, double and sometimes triple spaces appear between sentences “for ease of reading”, a formatting style that underlines the group’s anachronistic attitudes. Wikipedia is spelt WikipediA, to unintentionally amusing effect, though this idiosyncratic spelling probably owes more to naiveté than contrarianism.

It’s hard not to suspect that the modern world, with its Twittering, its rampant verbing and its hip-hop slang, appals and frightens these people. That’s understandable — it can be an appalling and frightening world — but a language academy will offer only illusory refuge, if any. The QES says it accepts that language changes, but it seems reluctant to go along with these changes until at least a few decades have passed. Reports the Times: “[Martin] Estinel [founder of the QES English Academy] said that he still used the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘happy’, but grudgingly accepted that its newer definition was now in the dictionary.” Well, bully for him. On the QES website we learn that Mr Estinel’s knowledge of English “was acquired at his Mother’s knee”. Assuming he wrote or at least read the brief, one wonders if that’s where he learned to capitalise mother.

I’ll try not to make a meal out of this, but ill-informed self-righteousness bugs me, and there’s material on virtually every page. Here’s the Queen’s English Society on comma splices, a subject I wrote about recently (summary of my conclusions: they’re not automatically errors, they’re not evil, they can be fine, but they should be avoided in some formal contexts):

One of the most common errors [...] is to use only a comma, without a conjunction, to join main clauses which could stand as separate sentences, each having a subject and finite main verb.

This simplistic injunction is undermined by the QES’s use of — you guessed it — a comma splice, in their “Rogues’ Gallery”:

This article is continued, please select the ‘next page’ link below

Things get rather hardcore. Here is a worrying passage on “linguistic criminals”:

The English language is public property and those who deface it are [...] guilty of an offence but the Law does not provide for the punishment of such “criminals”. Indeed if imprisonment were the lot of criminals defacing the language, our streets would be empty because most of the population would be behind bars.

Do you feel guilty yet? Policed? Judged? Damned? Yet some of the QES’s own punctuation and syntax are sloppy, to say the least:

We are not a teaching organisation, although if you have a specific question about English usage, you might do worse than to consult THE QES ENGLISH ACADEMY, within this website and we plan to make available, on-line examples of best-practice on topics such as letter writing and the preparation of curriculum vitae (CVs).

We venture now into a “quagmire of illiteracy” — the QES’s impressively patronising section on “The People’s English”, which showcases the “absolutely appalling level of English used by ‘ordinary’ people”:

No-one expects or requires average citizens to be literary geniuses but a minimum level of respect for the conventions of the language — and for the readers can be expected!

If I might be so bold: a comma after geniuses and a closing dash after readers would make this line immeasurably more intelligible; less condescension would make it more digestible. Superstitious avoidance of the split infinitive, meanwhile, leads the QES to a remarkably awkward construction in describing Mr Estinel’s background:

These 40 years of experience of translating several languages into English — in other words, working out how elegantly to present in English a text originally written (often badly) in another language — and as many years having his errors corrected by competent revisers and editors, have left him with a fine feeling for his mother tongue and a strong belief that English can and should be used not merely correctly but elegantly also.

If that’s what passes for elegance, long may I remain a ruffian. Elsewhere, we find a tired and outdated objection to people using hopefully the way almost everyone in the English-speaking world has long used it; a rejection of neologisms unless “no other word already exists to name a new concept or object”; and an unpleasant and predictable aversion to foreign influences: “our language will become diluted by foreign (especially US) influences”. Do they know anything about the history of their beloved language? What a stark and sickly tongue English would be without foreign influences — if indeed it would have survived at all.

Amidst the rehashes of dubious pet peeves there is some useful information and helpful advice, but my lasting impression is of a well-meaning but thoroughly misguided group of fusty fusspots. Linguism has detailed some of the QES members’ inconsistencies, while a commenter to his post wryly suggests that they call themselves “the Cwenes Englisc society”. A nice idea, but I think the QES ideology owes more to the notorious prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century — such as Robert Lowth, whom the QES quotes approvingly. There’s even a page outlining “Why The QES is PRESCRIPTIVIST”, peppered with scare quotes and offering a superficial description of prescriptivism and descriptivism. Their puzzled conceit over the existence of different points of view is almost pitiful to behold:

One would imagine that everyone concerned about the language would naturally want to join the QES and help towards that end. But this is not so; there are people, deeply involved in the language who just cannot identify with the QES approach or espouse its principles. This seems strange for, if you love the language, you would surely want to protect the way it is used and is developing.

This plaintive appeal is telling in many ways. It reveals the deep confusion that arises when one tries to reconcile language, in all its mutable complexity, with simplistic dogma and prejudice. It hints at a nostalgic hankering for the halcyon days when grammar education was based more on strict commandments (often imposed by grammarians to reflect mere stylistic preferences). It shows an arrogant presumption that right-thinking people ought to think just like them. And it betrays a kind of peevish parochialism, a grumpy dissatisfaction that the shibboleths of one’s tribe are not enforced as a universal default.

Since English seems to be changing faster than ever, no academy could hope to keep up. This is especially so because of the geographical reach of English and its consequent fracturing into countless overlapping varieties. But the task’s impossibility has not deterred the language martyrs. The Queen’s English Society is in ur English, scornin ur speech. Why can’t the rest of the English-speaking world be more like them, write like them, adore the Queen like them, despise split infinitives like them? Why can’t humanity in all its glorious diversity subscribe only to the dialect most familiar to the QES? It’s the one that matters, after all. Irony aside: the key to language use, as Stephen Bullon points out on the Macmillan Dictionary blog, is “appropriacy for a situation, not blanket decrees that outlaw words or structures at a stroke”.

Unsurprisingly, the QES’s claim to greater authority has been received less than enthusiastically. As well as the posts by Linguism and Macmillan Dictionary to which I linked above, John E. McIntyre has been blogging up a storm about it, imagining the absurdity of the academy’s meeting, showing how “language goes where it will and is what its users make of it”, and wondering about the “brittle veneer” of moral superiority that traditionally accompanies language snobbery. Elsewhere, Inky Fool takes the Academy to task over their inaugural press release, and Plain Text wants to save English from the QES.

In an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio National, Rhea Williams says the QES are trying to

make a backbone for English, so that people know there are certain rules that you use, that you follow, and if you follow those rules, people will always understand what you mean.

I hope she will forgive my scepticism. The QES, in its assessment of other language academies, says that provided it

recognises its limitations and is reasonably receptive to new additions to the language, it will be able to play a very important role in moderating modern usage.

I would argue that one person’s “reasonably receptive” is another person’s “decades out of date” or “preposterously out of context”, and that the Queen’s English Society has already forgotten its limitations. Pauline Foster at BadLinguistics asks some pertinent questions about the nature of their academy of English, such as: “Who gets to sit on the committee? What qualifications, apart from an overweening desire to tell other people off, fit you for this job?” John Mullan, in the Guardian, puts it plainly: “the Academy will not work.” That much seems assured. I only hope it doesn’t do too much harm.

* * *

Update: The Queen’s English Society and its website have attracted a lot of critical assessment over the last few days. I may add more links as they appear. For your reading pleasure:

John E. McIntyre regrets that “the peevish combination of shibboleth and superstition about language, combined with a sad, sad little snobbery about their presumed mastery of the language, renders these people impervious to reason…”

In a later post, Mr McIntyre states that “to the extent that anyone, particularly teachers, should pay attention to [The Queen's English Society's] crackpot advice about usage, they are capable of doing a good deal of harm.”

Revisiting this point, he says that “when newspapers give them a platform to parade their dim-witted ideas about language, there is a risk that the naive and easily practiced upon might take them seriously”.

Mark Liberman at Language Log describes the Queen’s English Society as “even more illogical, hypocritical and badly informed than you’d expect them to be”.

Lane Greene, at The Economist‘s language blog, suggests: “The way to inspire better English is through good teaching and the example of good writing . . . . Academies really don’t enter into it.”

Robert Hale finds that “arrant nonsense […] forms the bulk of the Queen’s English Society website”.

David Mitchell, in The Observer, says: “this is absolute horseshit. By what authority would they sit in judgment?”

Elizabeth Renzetti, in The Globe and Mail, notes the “linguistic richness of Brick Lane teenagers, Yorkshire grannies and Glaswegian taxi drivers. English a threatened language? That’s just a load of pants.”

Andrew Cusack believes that an Academy of English “would do more harm than good and would solve none of the problems that would provoke its foundation.”

Deborah Bennison, on her blog Wordwatch, writes that the QES’s website is “littered with grammatical errors and poor writing”, and she provides examples of its “laboured prose and inexplicable capital letters”.

Gabe Doyle, at Motivated Grammar, finds the QES’s complaints “petty, insane, or both”, and takes a close critical look at their dislike of Ms.

A later post at Motivated Grammar revisits the “well of madness that is the Queen’s English Society” in order to analyse an Economist interview with QES president Bernard Lamb.

Goofy, at bradshaw of the future (a blog that specialises in etymology), shows how problematic is the QES’s objection to a particular pronunciation of either.

June Casagrande, at Conjugate Visits, finds that the alarmists are “not about concern. They’re about control.”

In a post titled “If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down”, Pauline Foster analyses the QES’s attitude to subjunctives and finds that they are “not interested in honest arguments”.

In a subsequent post at BadLinguistics, she elaborates on the QES’s fuzzy logic and writes that “On the pretext of ‘preserving the language’ they like to tell us off”.

CIngram, at Sounds in the Hickory Wind, believes the QES “think the function of language is to show how clever they are at learning rules, and to express a stupid and sinister kind of nationalism”.

Ben Locker, at his Copywriting Blog, examines the anxiety over the state of English, and finds that Bernard Lamb is “very good at finding errors in his students’ work and getting his sweeping generalisations published in the newspapers”.

With admiration concision, Stephen Fry describes the formation of the Academy as “foolish, ignorant, poxridden, pathetic and tragically misbegotten”.

Barrie England, on his blog Real Grammar, finds the Academy’s website “shot through with so many inaccuracies and unsupported claims that it’s hard to know where to begin to counter them”. He selects a few, to give a flavour.

In a later post, and on a related Facebook page, he offers an astute criticism of a test which the Academy provides on its website. He concludes: “Don’t be fooled by these people. They are not the experts they claim to be. Left to them, English would become a bland and ineffective tool . . . instead of the vigorous and infinitely varied medium it always has been.”

I’d also like to add two lines from Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

We must reject as folklore any rule that is regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose

We ought to rethink the widely shared notion that every feature of standard English has some kind of self-evident, naturally determined ‘logic’ that makes it intrinsically superior to its corresponding form in non-standard English.

Update 2: This post was shortlisted in the “Best Blog Post” category of the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. I’m honoured and grateful.

* * *

* The QES disapproves of gender-neutral language.

** The QES disapproves of Ms.

[images from Wikimedia Commons: chain gang, Goya, language map]

86 Responses to The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities

  1. They’ve merely formed a linguistic residents’ association so that they can express their anger at an ever-changing world. That’s what British residents’ associations traditionally do when they’re not distracted by mowing the verges. It’s usually harmless but a bit batty.

  2. Stan says:

    PFW: I don’t know anything about British residents’ associations, but I’d like to think that your conclusion (“harmless but a bit batty”) is accurate. The QES is determined to influence education, but I’d prefer if another generation of children wasn’t weren’t inculcated with a pathological hostility to non-standard forms of English.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    White upper class privilege. Only the British can do this so very seriously.
    I’d love to send Paddy Rasta to one of their meetings.
    XO
    WWW
    PS I had trouble accessing your blog these past few days.

  4. Michele says:

    When I first read about this group, I wondered (like you) whether they had any knowledge of the English language’s motley background. The founders of the QES apparently want to stop the clock at some unspecified point in the past. Why not the Elizabethan era? It worked for Shakespeare.

    They’re welcome to their nitpicking, but I’ll stick with the living language, thank you.

  5. Yvonne says:

    Good on you Stan! A bracing read.

    I read today that the NYT has informed its journalists that the word “tweet” can only be used to refer to birdsong and I’m still vaguely wondering if that’s a joke. It couldn’t be true, could it?

    Anyone who learns at his Mother’s knee truly is the son of Gawd (or something similarly John Waynesian).

  6. smiler says:

    I love it when people so loudly deride people who are trying to do something good. Many people feel that our language is being spoiled by those who do not know the basic rules of English. The QES is merely trying to provide a place where those rules can be easily found and then used. We all know that English is a living language and people will always disagree about what is right and wrong, but for heavens sake, allow people to try to help. No-one has said that everyone will be made to follow, ‘the rules’. And once rules are known, one is free to break them……innit, like?

  7. Stan says:

    WWW: I imagine the QES would deny that class has anything to do with their activities, and I’m sure they would believe this, but I wonder if they know much about the role of class and privilege in the historical development of their brand of prescriptivism. Class is mentioned briefly somewhere on their labyrinthine website, but I don’t remember where, and there’s no search function.

    Michele: Yes, I noticed a peculiar adherence to the English of a particular era. Round about Fowler’s time, perhaps. They protest repeatedly that they accept the shifting nature of language, but this cannot be readily reconciled with their insistence on outdated folklore masquerading as “rules”.

    Yvonne: Thanks for reading! It was a bit of a monster post, and I might easily have written the same amount again in an hour or two, so abundant is the material. The “tweet” story made me think it was silly season at the NYT offices. It seems a foolish prohibition that will lead to more awkwardness than euphony.

    smiler: Thanks for your visit. I’m not stopping the QES from trying to help. Trying to help, however, doesn’t equate to helping. My main problem is that the QES presumes to be authoritative, but it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. You mention “the basic rules of English” and you refer to them repeatedly. Since there’s some dispute in this area, I’m curious about what you think the rules might be, and why you think they’re rules.

    Do you mean, for example: No double negatives? No preposition stranding? Use the subjunctive? The Queen’s English Society’s Comedy of Errors section insists that “‘from’ is the only correct preposition to be used with ‘different'”. Is this what you mean by a rule? Because it’s bunk. Their policy document asserts: “The natural place for a conjunction is within sentences, not at their beginning.” But this is not a rule; it’s superstitious, ill-informed nonsense.

    How about multiple negation — is that a no-no? “The Society respects traditional regional dialects, but deplores slovenly forms of English such as ‘They never saw nobody’, which can easily lead to confusions of meaning.” Self-contradictory rubbish. This is a pseudo-rule masking social stigmatisation. Anyone who is confused by “They never saw nobody” needs to expand their social horizons, or re-read Twain or something.

    Promulgating zombie rules like these doesn’t help anyone improve their English; it’s more likely to mislead them into thinking that Standard English is the One True Way, and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with their natural mode of expression. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis: “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  8. Ach, while there are some things that do grate, the imposition of the rules QES have in mind add nothing to the English language. It is one thing to use punctuation correctly to ensure that one’s meaning is correctly conveyed (something I still fail to do!) but QES look like they are trying to strangle the life out ofr what is a very rich and dynamic language.

  9. You gotta love them folks who seek to lecture others on correct English yet repeatedly violate those rules themselves. I picture a bunch of dust-covered old fossils in a room reeking of leather and pipe-smoke, harrumphing mightily at the thought that words used by the lumpen proletariat (or anyone born after 1910) are sullying “their” language.
    This is not to say that rules and standardisation aren’t important, however, and it’s a shame that such pedants give those to whom language actually matters a bad name. Things like punctuation, correct spelling, and (within reason) proper grammar are important, because a lot of the time they are necessary for comprehension, and because correctly used language is a pleasure to read. There are a lot of people who ignore them simply out of laziness, or ignorance, then attack anyone who points this out as a “Grammar Nazi”. (I’m glad if someone points out where I’ve made a mistake, either in spelling or in grammar!) Language is the key tool we have for communicating with one another, and should be treated with respect (but this shouldn’t stop you from having fun with it!)

  10. Stan says:

    Jams: Well said. Almost everyone has pet peeves, but they ought to be kept in perspective, not elevated to holy grammatical writ. I’ve no problem with prescriptive advice per se — some of it is helpful and sensible — but I dislike when linguistic “advice” is bogus and packaged with a presumption of supremacy or universality. Some of the writing on the QES website is very poor, so who are they to claim expert status?

    Doubtful: Yes, clear communication is important, and is greatly enabled by a certain level of standardisation in punctuation and spelling. But many of the pseudo-grammatical tenets so beloved of self-appointed usage authorities have little or no basis in grammar or even clarity, but rather spring from stylistic preferences mistaken for iron-clad rules and fetishised with a mighty harrumph, to borrow your amusing image. As Samuel Butler put it, “most men mistake grammar for style, as they mistake correct spelling for words or schooling for education”.

    Your point about fun is a good one. For some people, somewhere along the way, the innate playfulness and creativity of speech seems to have been lost, replaced by irritability and a fixation on fault-finding and finger-wagging. That’s no way to educate people.

  11. Well said. A fine, measured take-down of these appalling people and their eyesore of a website. I’m not so sure they are harmless either.

  12. gurubananas says:

    Their title is grammatically incorrect as it should read “The Society for The Queen’s English”.
    Their current nomenclature suggests that they are a society of English people who are fronted by The Queen. Tossers.

  13. Stan says:

    Harry: Thank you. Let’s hope they don’t attain even a smidgen of the power they seem to covet.

    gurubananas: Their title is a little ambiguous, but I wouldn’t call it grammatically incorrect.

  14. The Ridger says:

    “our language will become diluted by foreign (especially US) influences”… like “language, dilute, foreign, especially, and influence”, I presume.

  15. One wonders, if they’re so concerned about English being corrupted by foreign influences, will they issue an immediate ban on the use of Latin in English? Such as: ad hoc, bona fide, et cetera, in situ, per annum, post mortem, verbatim, versus, and vice versa (or, in keeping with their attitudes: erratum, and ad nauseum)? Or words of Indian origin? Will ‘bungalow’ become ‘one-story house’? Will ‘shampoo’ become ‘hair soap’? What about thug, verandah, pukka, loot, gymkhana, calico, chutney, and bangle (all from Hindi)? How will fans of Avatar react when their film has its title changed, by order of the society, to The Incarnation of a Deity in Human or Animal Form? Down with this sort of thing! Careful now…

  16. Martin Estinel says:

    Well done Mr. Carey. An excellent attempt at being wantonly destructive. Smiler, on 12 June 12 2010 at 8:29, am has understood. In your haste to deride, you have not. And as for WikipediA, did you not notice as you copied the image into your message that it is the company logo. Complain to the Wikimedia organisation if you do not like it. A professional writer would have known that one must respect trade names whether correct or not. I, naturally would have preferred “Wikipaedia”. That criticism alone suffices to indicate the worthlessness of your other snide remarks.

  17. smiler says:

    gurubananas: your mother must be sooo proud!

  18. As a member of the Queen’s English Society (but writing in a personal capacity) I peruse Mr Carey’s well-written piece, and contrast it with the “Engineers’ English” I had to wade through during my career. I hope Mr Carey would share my aversion to Engineers’ English, and I think it a shame that his criticisms of the QES, some of them justified, are made in so hostile a spirit.

    He refers to Professor Crystal, one of those who argue that all dialects and languages are equal in the eyes or minds of their users. The QES argues, on the contrary, that language variants are not all equal, and that Standard English deserves particular recognition and support. Yes, Standard English resists a concise definition – it is fuzzy at the edges – but is nontheless a real entity.

    If an English Academy comes about, it will be a child that will outgrow its parent, the QES; and it will encompass a broader view of Standard English than this initial website.

  19. Just a note for Mr Estinel above: “Wikipedia (pronounced /ˌwɪkɨˈpiːdi.ə/ WIK-i-PEE-dee-ə) is a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly-editable model. The name “Wikipedia” is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites, from the Hawaiian word wiki, meaning “quick”) and encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s articles provide links to guide the user to related pages with additional information.” (Taken from Wikipedia’s page about itself.) I’ve never seen anyone write WikipediA, and I imagine that this spelling is only used in their logo for design purposes.

  20. Stan says:

    The Ridger: Quite. How could the Queen’s English Society keep “foreign influences” at bay and hope to retain a healthy or even usable language?

    Doubtful: I wouldn’t presume to guess the QES’s opinion of Latin in English, but it’s difficult to see how they could reject foreign influences without a great deal of absurdity and inconsistency — to say nothing of why they would want to, or how they would decide what constitutes such an influence.

    EDIT: Doubtful, you might be interested to know that the QES would find fault with the position of only in the last sentence of your comment about Wikipedia. Others wouldn’t.

    Mr Estinel: Thanks for your visit. I see nothing snide about my remarks, though some of them were sharp or provocative, and for good reason. You think Smiler has understood; I don’t think he has — he just stood up for the Queen’s English Society, then he made a snide remark to another commenter. He hasn’t responded to my questions, just as you haven’t responded to my extensive (though far from comprehensive) criticisms.

    With one exception: you defend the bizarre spelling of Wikipedia. The capital A at the end is not a typographical mandate but an aesthetic flourish, designed perhaps to make the logo more symmetrical. A logo is not a trade name. A few exceptions aside (see above), everyone spells it Wikipedia — including the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia’s co-founders Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales.

    I’m disappointed by your lazy dismissal of my criticisms. We have different ideas about what’s good for the English language, but that doesn’t make my point of view “worthless”. As for “wantonly destructive”: no, just critical of judgemental pedantry from self-appointed “experts” who seem more haughty than helpful.

    Mr Gorman: Welcome, and thank you for your polite and thoughtful comment. I have a great fondness for plain English, though my corresponding aversion to gobbledegook is tempered with curious fascination.

    The hostility in my post stems from my dismay that the Queen’s English Society presumes to dictate on usage when its beliefs in this regard seem so dated, dubious, and inconsistent. I would hate to think that children were growing up afraid to split an infinitive or strand a preposition. Some of the supposed errors so vilified by the QES have been used by good writers in good writing throughout the history of the language.

    Regulation of English by an academy would not protect or improve the language. Even Samuel Johnson found the idea objectionable. Standard English already receives abundant recognition worldwide, but whether it needs or deserves fervent support is debatable, to say the least. Different dialects have different criteria of grammatical correctness; historical circumstance, not inherent superiority, is the main reason for the prestige and current predominance of Standard English.

    ***

    To interested readers, regardless of your beliefs regarding English usage, I recommend Shadyah A. N. Cole’s essay, “The Rise of Prescriptivism in English” (PDF, 311 KB) for some historical context.

  21. Martin Estinel says:

    To set the record straight and without further discussion, here are some defining facts about the QES and its Academy.
    – The QES has never blamed e-mails and text messages for the perceived degradation, that is a Press invention. These are a form of shorthand with a specific application – mobile telephony.

    What we do not set out to do is:
    – dictate the language
    – issue rules on how to use it (they already exist)
    – police the language
    – freeze the language.

    What we do set out to do is:
    – record best practice in the use of English by those who use it well
    – point out common errors committed by those who do not use it well
    – campaign for more effective teaching of English
    – campaign for the use of correct error-free English by the media.

  22. Claudia says:

    Stan – I was fascinated by your well documented post. Reading Mr.Estinel’s comment, and his total lack of courteous understanding of some of your justified criticisms, has put a sour taste on my French tongue. Instead of encouraging me to seek QES’ company to improve my English, it made me hostile and rebellious towards its rulers. Zut to the Queen English Society. And let me remind the dictators that my language with rococo, regime, connoisseur, chic, chaperon, camaraderie, avalanche, bric-a-brac, menu, tête-à-tête, and so many, many more, has given much panache to the Queen’s English. It could adopt one more:humilité when facing opposition.

    À ta santé, Stan. Well done, as always! Thank you for your teaching, and your kind corrections when needed.

  23. Neal Whitman says:

    “working out how elegantly to present a text in English…”: What’s to work out? One should always strive to do it as elegantly as possible!

  24. Stan says:

    Mr Estinel: The “defining facts” you list are simply not credible: I see great discrepancies between what you do and what you say you set out to do. For someone apparently interested in communication and teaching, you’ve done a good job of not listening or engaging in dialogue. Instead of sound debate, I see peremptory huffing, ipse-dixitism, and authoritarian bluster about spurious pseudo-rules — stylistic conventions you’ve mistaken for axioms. This approach is likely to win you converts only of a type who already agree with you.

    Claudia: Et à la tienne, mon amie! Thank you for your gracious and eloquent comment. I suspect that your independent spirit and sense of fun would not go down well at the Queen’s English Society. You would probably be sent to the naughty corner; you might even be excommunicated, along with your strange French words. No buts, and no zuts either.

    Neal: Exactly! It’s a good example of how blind faith in superstitions about grammar can inhibit elegance and clarity instead of serving them. The irony is irresistible.

  25. smiler says:

    ‘Promulgating zombie rules…..’ as you so nicely put it, is what enables English speakers to understand each other without constant explanation. If we do not have these ‘zombie rules’ how can we expect students to write clearly and precisely and be sure that they know and mean what they are saying?
    You and your acolytes seem to be protesting very loudly about something that is there to help. I wonder why it upsets you quite so much. If you don’t like it, ignore it….just as I shall try to ignore you!

  26. Stan says:

    smiler: My rejection of phoney grammatical rules hasn’t prevented you or QES members from understanding me. On the contrary: Michael Gorman kindly complimented my writing. Capable writers dismiss these “rules”, and rightly so. It’s worth comparing their prose with the awkward and ambiguous constructions on the QES website. You might begin to see where rigid adherence to non-rules gets you.

    The Queen’s English Society doesn’t upset me, but I decided to criticise it for reasons I’ve already made clear. Absolute certainty is an unsound strategy; dogmatic belief in obvious nonsense is less sensible still. I humbly suggest that you indulge in a little healthy self-doubt. Try not to insult people just because they challenge your careless convictions, and try to think a while longer — or think harder — before your next attempt at debate.

  27. Mr Carey: writing in a style which is free and easy but still understandable is rather like driving a car at 5mph over the speed limit. It is an excursion, and it is exciting, but there is still implicit recognition of the rule.

    Your own writing is clear, but so much writing and formal speech is not. After every public disaster, one of the reasons is found to be “failure of communication”. Or, in plain English, that nobody wrote or read the clear instructions that were needed. So poor English has a cost, in money and general terms.

  28. Stan says:

    Mr Gorman: You can call me Stan, if you like. I agree that writing and formal speech are often unclear, and that this causes all sorts of problems. It’s a subject I address repeatedly on Sentence first. But the problems won’t be solved by fixating on pseudo-rules, or by spreading alarmist flapdoodle such as the following: “We have reached a point where no-one, neither MP, civil servant, teacher nor pupil cares any longer about the correct use of language.”

  29. Ray Girvan says:

    Stan: re multiple negation

    This impinges on one of the aspects that irritates me most: that non-standard English offers any barrier to understanding. The world is full of regions where people communicate perfectly well in a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects, often more radically varying than anything we’d hear in the UK. Pedants merely profess to misunderstand constructs that annoy them for, generally, classist reasons.

    But take one into bear-infested country, and get a folksy forest warden to tell them, “You don’t want to leave no unwrapped food in your tent.” I defy even the strictest pedant to follow their double-negative rule and treat that as an instruction to leave unwrapped food in their tent. They understand fine.

  30. Stan says:

    Ray: Yes, it’s a tiresome myth that non-standard forms (like multiple negation) lead to common confusion. It happens, certainly, but the context almost always makes the meaning clear enough. Very few people are prepared to own up to prejudice, so it’s easier to present it as “education” or “correctness” even if it means clinging to blatant fallacies.

  31. Just on the subject: while multiple negation may not lead to incomprehension, it is still incorrect (in my humble opinion), because it is, when logically examined, saying the opposite of what it means! But, as you say, context is very important: saying “you don’t want to leave no unwrapped food in your tent” is one thing, but writing “don’t leave no unwrapped food in your tent” on a sign in a campsite is an entirely different matter. If someone uses a double negative in speech, it is still technically wrong, but it is both tactless and patronising to point it out (unless the person is a foreigner studying English). However, to write it down is pretty hard to excuse unless the person is deliberately adopting a colloquial idiom, is rushing to meet a deadline, or is semi-literate.

  32. Stan says:

    Doubtful: That language operates like formal logic is a common misconception. It doesn’t, and the negatives don’t cancel each other out. Several other languages (from various language families) have multiple negation as a matter of routine, as do some non-standard English dialects. Repetition of negatives was common in Old English and Middle English, but became socially disagreeable between the 16C and 18C. Far from being (necessarily) incorrect or illogical, multiple negation can emphasise the negative intent. I’ll go into this in more detail in a separate blog post.

  33. Stan (20.00/15/6/2010) is right that in spoken English a double negative is an emphatic negative. For example, “I don’t take no orders from no pedants”.

    But it will not do in Standard English, where one is trying to reach or impress a wider, more educated, and perhaps foreign audience.

  34. I’m not sure I’m convinced, Stan, but I’ll defer to your greater knowledge in these matters! It just seems to me that if someone says “I didn’t see no train” the “no” is purely there to heighten the emphasis, as you said (picture someone not unlike Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly snarling “I didn’t see no stinkin’ train!”) But what they actually mean is “I didn’t see a/the/any/that train, and I am emphasising the fact” (which doesn’t have the same force!) But if I write, in my blog, “I am not eating no dinner, because I am not hungry” in a rather dull and prosaic post, then because it is not there for emphasis or to heighten the emotion (as in the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’) it just looks wrong to me. It seems to me that a double negative, like anything else in language, is yet another tool, and while it can be very effective, there are times when its use is inappropriate. (I use double negatives in conversation, I must admit, as I find them amusing, but I try to avoid using them in writing unless transcribing actual speech).
    Sorry for rambling, but I find this subject fascinating.

  35. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha ha …
    As I can’t decide where to start I shall begin with the end:
    Doubt is not a pleasant mental state but certainty is a ridiculous one. [Voltaire]

    In order to guard myself against misunderstandings: This does not necessarily implicate any smiler’s mental state. It’s just a statement.

    And now as the thoughts will come upon me.
    Not to repeat arguments stated above this undogmatic purist will focus on but a few points not having been mentioned yet.

    It is a fine thing listening to an eloquent speaker, and to read an excellently written book causes one’s heart to rise with joy like a falcon up into the air, especially when you are a connoisseur of the English language.
    Agreed? Fine.
    And now let’s take two politicians, one a lousy speaker, the other a British Cicero and let’s – for the sake of this example – presume both are liars; let’s further presume our BC (British Cicero) wins the election and becomes the next Ex-prime minister in spe.
    Will her majesty’s [sic] subjects feel any better, as long as they are being betrayed by a politician whose English meets a standard they do accept?

    The German ‘Kabarettist’ Werner Fink, when detecting Nazi spies in his show used to say: “Those who do feel insulted are meant.” So be it.

    Blimey! How cometh I fear that when within the next ten minutes I am falling into the feathers and putting my head on the pillow I might not land in Morpheus’ arms, ’cause I am badly worried my English might not have met the standard of certain noble gentle(wo)men?
    Ah, dum spiro spero.
    After a while a smiler might appear before my closed eyes, friendly murmur ‘Panta rhei’ and with a serene smile on my lips I shall fall asleep. Thanks, Heraklitus.
    The peace of the night.

    Ah, and finally for the beginning: Interesting post, interesting comments. Does there exist a Queen’s Society to set standards for polite discourses?

  36. Claudia says:

    Ah, Sean! You’re such a gordges man. Who could find fault with you? Here’s a smiley to brighten your day.;-) Cheers!

  37. Stan says:

    Doubtful: The double negation in “I am not eating no dinner” looks strange because “I am not eating” is formal, so the registers are mixed. Compare it with “I ain’t eatin’ no dinner”. As I wrote in my response to Ray, confusion is possible, but it’s rare because the context usually suffices to transmit the meaning unambiguously.

    As I can’t decide where to start I shall begin with the end

    Sean: A very apt approach for Bloomsday, since this is what Joyce did with his Wake. Thank you for a most entertaining read. It might edify the neophobes if they weren’t put off by your idiosyncratic style — which, I would add, is part of what makes your writing so pleasurable to me.

    Voltaire, with his enlightened sense of doubt, must be another of those subversive foreign types. The academy would hoof him out with a neigh and a nay. Heraclitus and Simplicius will just have to revise their observations, to allow for people who are determined to thwart the inevitable and scowl at those who manage to enjoy it.

  38. My final word on the subject of double (or multiple) negatives belongs to someone else. Douglas Adams had Marvin the Paranoid Android give this description of Trillian in Life, The Universe, and Everything: “That young girl is one of the least benightedly unintelligent organic life forms it has been my profound lack of pleasure not to be able to avoid meeting.” Still makes me chuckle (and I ain’t making no apologies to the QES for that incomplete sentence neither!)

  39. [...] Carey writes an insightful piece on the Queen’s English Society. Loving the blog [...]

  40. CIngram says:

    ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ as Willy Nelson done sung.

    Mr Estinel clearly has nothing to say, and so, having little use for the language as a vehicle of communication, he treats it as an exercise in the application of rules, which he doesn’t seem to understand in any case. Contrast his comments with those of Mr Gorman, who does have something to say and expresses it well (though he might express it better if he ignored the advice of the QES- note the self-conscious avoidance of contracted forms).

    Another underlying, and quite wrong, assumption, is that children learn to communicate by being told rules in the classroom. They don’t, they learn by observing how others communicate, trying, failing, trying again, and discovering how different listeners interpret their words.

    Another little clue for Mr Estinel: context is everything; and I do mean everthing. When (young) people text, tweet, Messenger, Tuenti, scribble postcards or just talk to each other, much of the language they use is not only non-standard and largely incomprehensible to anyone outside the group, but is in fact mostly meaningless. This is because it’s not intended to convey factual information, but simply to express their pleaure at being together.

    Sorry to ramble on so much, I was going to post on this at my own place but everyone else seems to have beaten me to it.

  41. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Thanks for the chuckle-worthy line by Adams; it had been years since I’d read it. I wonder if your defiant sentence fragment has caused consternation among the purists.

    CIngram: No need to be sorry. I appreciate your comment, and I generally don’t mind people rambling. The only exception that comes to mind occurred several months ago: a very short post I wrote, about Hermann Melville’s use of “less than” with a count noun, attracted a 3000-word sermon about the sanctity of Christian wedlock. I almost regretted sending it to the trash folder.

  42. Three cheers for Mr. Gorman. The anything-goes approach to the use of English is indicative of a society than values only that which is dumbed down.

    Sincerely,
    Jonathan Goldberg

  43. Stan says:

    Jonathan: What “anything-goes approach”? Instead of addressing my points, you seem to have placed a straw man on a hobby horse.

  44. The Ridger says:

    Clearly, anybody who objects to double negatives because they “cancel out” would find triple negatives fine. But they never do. It is thus obvious that it isn’t “logic” that compels them, but a shibboleth of style. Which is fine, of course, if only they’d admit it, admit that one negative + indefinites (instead of multiple negatives) is merely how their preferred (to be fair, it is the standard) works.

  45. I am not British, I am not old-fashioned, I applaud innovative changes in the English language and I do not consider myself as belonging to any association. No pigeon-holing of my views will stick. Without wanting to address all the points made by the witer of the article, whom I assume to be Stan, although the article is not signed (for fear of boring everyone and because this would require more time than I have or more space than I may be allowed for a comment), I decry what I would label an “anything- goes” approach that pervades modern society, not only in the field of linguistics. I detect a holier-than-thou attitude in some of the criticisms of the Queen’s English Society, whose aims I broadly support.

  46. Stan says:

    Jonathan: Thank you for elaborating. Yes, I wrote the article; each entry on this blog is signed “Posted by Stan”, though this isn’t visible on the pages of individual posts. The “‘anything goes’ approach that pervades modern society” to which you object is too vague an idea for me to address here. For what it’s worth, my own writing is informed not by anarchy or wanton disregard — or by what Joseph M. Williams called “classroom folklore” — but by reading and re-reading great and careful writers, and by following sensible guidance from authorities throughout history.

    I don’t particularly enjoy being so critical, but when an organisation claims authority over English usage and offers poor advice in an unpleasant tone, they can expect to be challenged. The trouble with supporting their aims broadly is that the devil is, as ever, in the details — hence my close reading and detailed criticism of the material on the QES website. If that makes me holier than them in your eyes, so be it, but be assured I took little pleasure in it.

  47. John Cowan says:

    The notion that if we don’t agree that rules are more important than evidence, then we must believe that anything goes, is on all fours with “If you’re not a Fascist you’re a Communist” (or vice versa). It’s a false dichotomy.

    Mr. Gorman’s four purposes are excellent ones, and entirely fit for such an organization as he purports to belong to. Alas, the organization’s notion of what is and what is not an error is driven by prejudice and ignorance, rather than by observation and deduction.

  48. Stan,

    Would it be possible to have your e-mail address so that I can write you directly?

    Regards
    Jonathan

  49. Stan says:

    John: Well said, sir.

    Jonathan: Certainly. You can reach me at stancarey1[at]gmail.com.

  50. Martin Estinel says:

    I have sat back and followed this exchange for some days and one thing strikes me. The level of the discussion is both high and eloquent, even though I naturally disagree with much of the content. This indicates one thing to me. The people who care about the subject and can write about it so eloquently are not those who, in the first instance, could benefit from what The Academy sets out to offer. How about letting The Academy do what it can to help those others who might stand something to gain.
    I would also add, now that so many people have dragged my name through the mud, that the Queen’s English Society has existed (largely unnoticed) since 1972 and it is only now that I have proposed an Academy and have spent hundreds of hours working unassisted on producing the content that people are beginning to take notice. Much of the criticism (nit-pickers apart) is valid. I should be the first to welcome the backing of this learned body of critics. What have you done to help alleviate the unquestionable poverty of the teaching of English in Britain? If you had really cared, you might have beaten me to it and done something, albeit something different. As I came up with the idea first, I repeat – don’t beat me, join me. Or rather, join us for The Academy belongs to and has the support of the Queen’s English Society as a whole. And the goals of The Academy have little to do with the details with which so many have sought to take issue. Take an interest in the QES, follow its progress and activities and you might find that its views are not that different from your own.
    Oh, and just a parting thought: why is it so bad that The QES has created The Academy yet this discussion has brought to light so many other sites that (interestingly and educationally) also deal with the English language? Is it really possible that, say, WordPress is good but QES is bad? Be a little more generous, there is room for all of us on the Internet. A little tolerance and understanding would go a long way. In the end, we all promote the same thing – a good level of English.

  51. John McIntyre says:

    Joining forces with the Academy? Let’s also consider inviting the research universities to pair up with the vendors of weight-loss gadgets, cancer cures, and baldness remedies

  52. Bob Hale says:

    Why that would be as unlikely as an alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Oh…

    Seriously though, I’m sure that no one wants to drag Mr Estinel’s name through the mud. I’m also sure that he loves the English language every bit as much as I do but our views about how language works seem to be so fundamentally at odds that I can’t see how they could ever be reconciled.

  53. Stan says:

    Mr Estinel: Thank you for your additional comments. I appreciate your acknowledgement that much of the criticism expressed here is valid, and that the level of discussion has been “high and eloquent”. This is an improvement on the cursory disdain that characterised your previous contributions. I hoped that the reasons for my objection to an English academy were already clear. To repeat and summarise: I think that many of the rules it cherishes are unsound and untenable, and I dislike the way it’s promoting them.

    You write, “What have you done to help alleviate the unquestionable poverty of the teaching of English in Britain? If you had really cared, you might have beaten me to it and done something, albeit something different.” For one thing, I write this blog. Education isn’t its sole concern, but it is one of its chief ones. I would also point out that I’m Irish and I live in Ireland, so the teaching of English in Britain isn’t of foremost importance to me. You’re not the first person to spend a lot of time on something flawed and misconceived. It might be better to come to terms with this than to persist in trying to make the world bend to your will.

    You ask for generosity, tolerance, and understanding, but only in relation to your own organisation. I see none of these qualities in the Queen’s English Society’s statement that it “deplores slovenly forms of English such as ‘They never saw nobody’”. Even allowing for the possibility that you would be more accommodating of non-standard English if you encountered it in person rather than in written prose, it’s difficult to imagine common ground with the QES. If I heard someone say “They never saw nobody”, I would be interested and probably a little charmed. It seems that you, to put it mildly, would not.

    You say that we all promote a good level of English. Superficially this is true, but it contains an insurmountable incongruity. Bob Hale puts it succinctly in the comment above mine. You equate good English with standard English, and you show contempt for non-standard forms. Not only could I never accord with this, but I find it troubling. The world is a bigger, richer place than your verbal constraints have allowed you to imagine.

  54. dee senier says:

    Please excuse me for butting in at this late stage, but I’ve only just found your blog and thought I’d share this with you.

    The last time I looked, on page 2 of the ‘About the Society’ section on the QES website, a photograph of a grimacing schoolboy clutching a mobile phone was captioned as follows: “Receiving a humerous text message”. It brought to mind the label I saw on a plastic crate of teaching materials in a classroom at a local comprehensive school. It read “English Grammer”.

    I emailed the QES with this nugget weeks ago but, sadly, have not yet enjoyed the surprise of a reply.

  55. Claudia says:

    Stan –
    Re: Your latest answer to Mr Estinel(June 25-2010) Hear! Hear! Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! With warm feelings from my FranGlais heart and spirit.

  56. Sean Jeating says:

    Touché!

    By the way, if I were an impeccable master of the English and suddenly every Smith and Jones happened to be as perfect as I, me and myself, we‘d not be amused. After all, there’d be nothing left to be proud of, hm?
    Always looking on the humerous side of life.
    The peace of the night.

  57. Sean Jeating says:

    and here’s the missing language.

  58. I would have hoped that there might be more general agreement on the urgent and critical need to maintain the highest standards of spoken and written English expression. (Would it be too much to aspire to raise them?) Then we could have a sensible debate about what QES is doing right and what it is doing wrong to further those aims. Instead, no small portion of the comments on your blog are niggling, petty and in some cases smart-arse. I even detect a class-driven chip on the shoulder in some of the comments. Would it not be possible to have some constructive debate that is not motivated by a desire to shoot down all and any of QES’s aims?

  59. Sean Jeating says:

    ‘Knowledge is not an abstract homogeneous good, of which there cannot be enough. Beyond the last flutter of actual or possible significance, pedantry begins.’ [Jacques Barzun]

  60. Claudia says:

    @Sean – Thank you for the quotation. Jacques Barzun is one of my favourite writers. I’m learning much from him. His style is so alive. I always feel he is speaking to me personally in his books.

  61. Stan says:

    dee senier: Thanks for sharing your finding, and I’m sorry to reply so late. The photo you refer to appears to have been recaptioned: it now reads “Receiving a humorous text message”. But it’s strange that you received no response from the Queen’s English Society (unless of course you’ve heard from them since).

    Claudia: Thank you!

    Sean: Good point, and thank you for the line by Barzun. How tedious and silly things would be if we all spoke as the QES would like us to.

    Jonathan: What are these “highest standards”? There is no ideal form of English, and the prose I read on the QES website is often poor. You don’t think this was a sensible debate, but I see plenty of constructive criticism in the comments here. The more one craves respect but falls short of deserving it, the more one invites ridicule.

  62. [...] imagine to be important grammatical rules — in this case stranding a preposition. As I’ve shown before, automatic deference to dubious pseudo-rules is associated with substandard prose and a penchant [...]

  63. Deborah says:

    Hi

    I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for the mention! Spare me from the QES. Seriously.

    Deborah

  64. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Deborah. Thanks for your visit!

  65. Having only now come back to this discussion, after a break of several weeks, I have picked up a point made by Mr. Estinel. I would like to support his argument, which I would express in my own words as follows: The common denominator of all participants in this discussion seems to be the fact that they are very articulte and have an excellent command of English. They could not have acquired those skills without a healthy respect for the rules of English – an admittedly flexible and debatable concept. And yet the detractors appear to want (not necessarily conciously or in a spirit of malice) to deprive coming generations of the benefit of the very training and education that they themselves have clearly enjoyed.

  66. Deborah: If you have enjoyed this discussion, then why not contribute to it constructively rather than dismissively. “Spare me from the QES” is not a constructive comment. How would you value another reader’s comment: “Spare me from Deborah”? I wonder if sociologists have found a nexus between lack of civility and lack of respect for linguistic rules.

  67. “…they are very articulte” – sorry for that typo error. I obviously mean “articulate”.

    Jonathan

  68. “When (young) people text…..much of the language they use is…largely incompressible to anyone outside the group , but is in fact mostly meaningless. This is because it’s not intended to convey factual information, but simply to express their pleasure at being together.”
    Firstly, as far as I know, humans have succeeded from time immemorial in expressing pleasure and other emotions by using speech, often supported by smiles, laughter (or, for other emotions, crying, etc.), so the idea that they needs tweets to do that seems ridiculous. Secondly, and accepting your assumption for the purposes of the argument, if children want to communicate in a code language that, as you rightly state, is incomprehensible to anyone outside the group, that’s fine. The problem stems from the danger (not to say reality) that this tweeting and texting will replace normal, educated speech as their predominant linguistic skill. This may happen when they become removed from the world of other people who inhabit the planet, or because such modes of communication are considered to be more cool (or should that be cooler?) by their peers (and apparently by some readers of this blog) or because they find rules such a bore, or for all those reasons together.

  69. Deborah says:

    @Jonathan Goldberg

    Hi Jonathan

    I agree with everything Stan has so eloquently discussed, both in his original post and in his replies to readers’ comments. My contribution to the debate is aired on my own blog.

    “I wonder if sociologists have found a nexus between lack of civility and lack of respect for linguistic rules.”

    That’s a good question. I considered it myself when reading the following on the QES website:

    “This is the page on which no-one will want to appear. If you do find your name here, hang your head in shame because you are by definition a person of English mother tongue with a good education, and you occupy a public position in politics, TV, the press, public service or the like and should know better than to have said or written that which is being reported here.” (Quick query: Does the Queen write in 59-word sentences?)

    “The excessive use of “one” and worse still “ones” is very low-class and inelegant yet Julian Fellowes, who makes it quite clear that, as much as he hates snobs, he is just that — a snob, constantly drops these working-class “ones” into his “fraightfully” posh English.” (Quick query: Is this a ‘high-class and elegant’ sentence?)

    I wonder what ‘low-class’ means in this context? Is ‘working-class’ now a term of abuse?

    If someone said ‘spare me from Deborah’, I would ask why. If the QES asked the same question, the above would be a small part of my answer.

    Kind regards

    Deborah

  70. Deborah: I was not able to find the remarks to which you refer and to understand in response to whom and to what they were expressed. What I do know is that this is a serious subject and reducing it to personal bickering and/or to finding omitted apostrophes does the subject a disservice. Please send me the address of your blog, which I would like to read.
    Le.mot.juste.en.anglais@gmail.com

  71. Deborah says:

    Hi Jonathan

    The quotes in my comment are lifted directly from the QES website.

    Here’s my blog:

    http://dbennison.wordpress.com/

    It’s not overly serious, but you’re welcome to visit.

    Kind regards

    Deborah

  72. Deborah attributes “ ‘fraightfully’ posh English” to the views apparently expressed by a representative of the QES. A month ago (before she joined the discussion, I believe) I wrote “I detect a class-driven chip-on-the-shoulder in some of the comments.” Not being British, I find the diversion of a subject to class-war issues as a major distraction. Maybe some persons’ vehement opposition to the goals of the QES cloaks opposition to the monarchy itself. That’s a serious sub ject for debate – elsewhere. If anti-monarchism is some people’s sub-plot, I’d like to get back to the main plot.

  73. [...] of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David [...]

  74. Stan says:

    Jonathan: Thank you for your additional comments. It can be a challenge to come to terms with new meanings and concepts, but it’s unwise to simply deny their validity. No wonder the Queen’s English Society has such difficulty adjusting to language change and modern linguistic developments.

    Much of my criticism of the QES hinges on its arrogant and untenable belief that standard English is a superior dialect, and on its confusion of classroom myths for grammatical rules. You admit that some of these “rules” are flexible and debatable, yet the QES considers them important enough to perpetuate despite decades of disrepute, and to censure people who ignore them. As I’ve shown above, fixating on these pseudo-rules has little or nothing to do with grammar or clear communication; it seems motivated more by unthinking habit, social presumptions or psychological hang-ups (e.g., the need to control or look down on others) than by linguistic or literary sense.

    Class is immaterial to me, but usage has long been used as a marker of social standing, and I detect class-based prejudice in the QES’s scornful dismissal of non-standard English. On this point I’ll quote from A History of Language by Steven Roger Fischer: “protestations [that non-standard usage lowers standards] are meaningless in the larger saga of living languages. ‘Superior’ dialects are only a chimera…” Joseph M. Williams felt similarly — see the quote at the end of this post. Williams further wrote, “Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take ‘bad’ grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive [emphasis added].

    You write that “the detractors appear to want […] to deprive coming generations of the benefit of the very training and education that they themselves have clearly enjoyed.” I can’t see how you reached this bizarre conclusion, unless it preceded the points I’ve made. Training and education are vital, but they should be carried out by people who know what they’re talking about. In this respect, the Queen’s English Society is demonstrably unsuitable and unqualified. Education has no place for the irresponsible parroting of bogus notions of grammar and usage — to say nothing of hauteur and condescension.

  75. [...] English Society. You might remember them for the savaging they received at the hands of Stan Carey, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell. A brief summary: they’re a group of misguided pedants [...]

  76. Nick says:

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a group like the QES. It’s rather noble of them to take on such a valiant emprise as correct grammar. Alas, in the end, I don’t even think the powers that be shall be able to halt language corruption or dialects. If only it were not so, but there will always be those people who will teach correct grammar in classrooms.

  77. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Nick. I’m all for the dissemination of grammar advice, but it should be good advice that takes both historical and modern usage into account; it also ought to be offered with tolerance and generosity. The QES falls short on both counts.

    People have been lamenting the corruption of English for centuries, but the language appears to be doing quite well. And why would you want to halt dialects? Dialects indicate human variety. Is this a bad thing? Even the Queen speaks a dialect; it just happens to be a prestige one. Maybe you mean non-standard dialects, but ‘non-standard’ doesn’t equal ‘incorrect’, and either way it’s a puzzling remark.

  78. Have you seen their offspring, The Academy of Contemporary English ?

    I have commented on my own blog here and here and on the associated Facebook page .

  79. Stan says:

    Hello, Barrie. Thanks for your visit, and for directing me to what you’ve written on the subject. I enjoyed all your links, and have added them to the collection at the foot of my post. Yes, I’ve seen the revamped Academy website, and have made notes for a follow-up post.

  80. Thank you. Look forward to your next post.

  81. [...] go through the whole article, because most of it is uninteresting fluff and Stan Carey already said all that really needed to be said about the Queen’s English Society’s position. I just want to mention two things that [...]

  82. [...] makes some general remarks. It’s a long post, but not as long (or cranky) as my earlier “The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities“, which you might like to read first, for [...]

  83. Karen says:

    As a lover of words, I can only say that if the English language is studied through the ages the intelligent will understand that it is perpetually changing. Whether it be punctuation, spelling or grammar look back into history and see how true it is. You cannot fix the English language to time – it moves with it.

  84. Stan says:

    Just so, Karen. Some aspects of language change faster than others – vocabulary and punctuation are less stable than grammar, for example – but it is all subject to perpetual change, as you say, and to demand or hope otherwise is futile.

  85. [...] an innocuous bit of syntax can also generate striking irony, as in the following passage from the Queen’s English Society: (18) These 40 years of experience of translating several languages into English – in other [...]

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