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
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.
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.