Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it.

This post is in three parts: the first comments on the Queen’s English Society (QES) and the Academy of Contemporary English formed under its auspices; the second introduces two groups set up to oppose them; the third 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 context.

Wikipedia has a few basic facts about the QES and its Academy. You probably know that Wikipedia is a portmanteau word created by blending wiki with encyclopedia. If you didn’t, I don’t recommend asking the people at the Academy what portmanteau words are, because they do not know:

And this, we are told, “is where the Academy is in its element”. Even if it hadn’t confused portmanteau words with auto-antonyms, its point would be just as senseless: neither construction is a “[reason] why English is being debased”. Though you could, if you were so inclined, make the case that English is debased by hopelessly muddled definitions.

Behind the QES’s dubious claims to authority and good judgement in English usage lies an ignorance of how language works and an ignoble attitude to non-standard expression. My earlier post has many examples. This one has some more.

In Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, George Lakoff writes:

Grammars of languages are used automatically, effortlessly, unconsciously, and almost continuously – as long as one is speaking, listening, or even dreaming in the language.

Languages have many rules, most of which are understood implicitly by native speakers. Even if you’ve never studied the rules of syntax and morphology, you use them instinctively every day. The sham rules that get all the attention, like “Don’t split infinitives”, are not grammar rules but fossilized stylistic preferences. The popular appeal of grammar suffers because of bad-tempered insistence on these points, which were in many cases created by pedants decades or centuries ago and elevated through repetition to the status of pseudo-authority.

Though good writing does not depend upon them, these points of style and usage are the sort that find fervent favour with the QES, its Academy, and pet peevers everywhere. For example, after surveying the range of opinion on what prepositions can follow different, I found that from, than, and to are all valid – to varying degrees in different contexts – yet the QES claims that only from is acceptable, and it believes this non-rule is absolute and eternal.

If you study language or pay impartial attention to how it works, a belief so trivial and unreasonably rigid might strike you as misguided, arrogant, and even crazy. You would be in good company. Geoffrey K. Pullum, Head of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, wrote that prescriptivists of this sort

do not acknowledge any circumstances under which they might conceivably find that they are wrong about the language. If they believe infinitives shouldn’t be split, it won’t matter if you can show that every user of English on the planet has used split infinitives, they’ll still say that nonetheless it’s just wrong. That’s the opposite insanity to “anything that occurs is correct”: it says “nothing that occurs is relevant”. Both positions are completely nuts.

The other insane position Pullum mentions is also relevant here. “Anything that occurs is correct” is an inane caricature of descriptivism, a straw man that extreme prescriptivists use to paint descriptivists as people who care so little about effective communication that they accept as valid everything that is said or written:

The Descriptivists . . . consider to be correct anything that is said or written [Academy website]

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. [QES website]

This is fatuous codswallop. Descriptivists know there are exponentially more ungrammatical strings of words than there are grammatical ones. Try it. Assemble some words at random, or babble in deliberate defiance of speech norms. No one in their right mind would call the results grammatical (unless by outrageous chance you uttered something correct).

If only the sticklers’ claim were a disingenuous parody. But it appears to be a sincere belief, perhaps tied to cultural unease, and it fuels the sticklers’ sense of besieged martyrdom: the conviction that they alone truly care. They can lament that the language (and the world as we know it) is going to the dogs, and that we need these rules – the ones they like – to save it.

“At the moment, anything goes,” says Martin Estinel, founder of the Academy. “The only people who use the phrase ‘anything goes’,” says David Crystal, “are prescriptivists desperately trying to justify their prejudices.” It’s possible that, as the esteemed John E. McIntyre wrote, they are after all “impervious to reason”.

You get to choose whose opinions to credit.

* * *

I could go on in this vein and bore you to tears or total apathy, but I don’t have to. Others have taken up the case, and have done so more entertainingly and eloquently than I ever could have. If you’ve been following the QES’s shenanigans, or if you have even a passing interest in the bizarre power struggles over English usage, you’ll find much to savour on the websites of the Anti-Queen’s English Society and the Proper English Foundation. I offer both groups a happy and belated welcome.

The Anti-Queen’s English Society (Anti-QES) seeks to “resist essentialist and imperialist views of language, as promoted by the Queen’s English Society”. It contends that the QES “are archaic perpetuators of linguistic prejudice”, and it finds the QES’s definition of English “fundamentally political, classist and entirely unempirical”. It supports these contentions at articulate length.

In a thoughtful analysis of a book by QES president Bernard Lamb, Robert Baird of the Anti-QES lays bare some of the QES’s “laughable misconception[s]”, and finds that the QES fabricates facts to meet a “culturally entrenched agenda”. Lamb, by the way, approves of yummy mummy but presumably still disapproves of Ms.; the Academy calls it a “linguistic misfit” on a particularly silly page of sexist nonsense.

Even as he praises Baird’s analysis, Martin Estinel takes a potshot at “the illiterate masses” and their “inarticulate noises”. Classy. Sneering disdain seems to be a specialty; see “common curs”, below, and witness this, from the Academy’s Robin White:

what proceeds from the mouths of many British ‘speakers’ of English could reasonably be described as a series of squeaks and grunts, nasal whinings and clucking.

“Reasonably”? No, not remotely so. Does slinging insults have educational value, or is it just the technique they’re most comfortable with?

The Anti-QES, by contrast, is a model of level-headed tolerance. Its website is friendly, informed, and accessible, with room for comments and a growing list of quotes, commentaries, references and resources. Its scholarly prose is leavened by wit and geniality, making it a consistent pleasure to read. The Anti-QES acknowledges the problems with its name, and is open to ideas. I suggested The Pawns’ English Society. If you have any thoughts on the matter, do let them know. They’re on Facebook, too.

*

The Proper English Foundation (PEF) has its own Académie von anglais as a counterpoint to the Academy of Contemporary English (that name, alas, unlike its mischievous nemeses’, does not sound a note of ironic humour*). These self-described “Kings of English” also launched a petition, Protect me from yon “Queen’s English Society”, demanding that the QES be kept “at least 50 yards away from the English language at all times”. It urges media outlets discussing language “to interview experts who use evidence”. There’s an idea!

Much of the PEF website takes the form of sharp, cheerfully unhinged parody. Alongside its admirable Académie, it hosts a dungeon of enemies that includes a man on a train, Geoffrey Chaucer (the detestable cur), Shakespeare (the embarrassing twit), and the Queen’s English Society itself, whose website the PEF acknowledges to be “far superior to a car-crash in most ways!” I have the honour of a couple of amusing cameos on this page.

The PEF offers a rambling abundance of pages offering many laughs. You will find, among other delights, a world map of southern England; a collection of silly foreignisms (recommended for NEMPs, whose English, says the QES, is “almost invariably wrong” and leads to “sinister and perverse” situations); an essay on how languages evolve (which amidst the mischief makes the prudent point that “In many ways, corruptions are the history of language”); and a list of common errors – that is, “errors that mark you out as common”.

* * *

Jan Miense Molenaer: Peasants in the Tavern (detail). It's fair to assume that these shameless devils are mauling and massacring their language.

The last link may be of particular interest to the “common curs” who by daring to speak in their natural dialects “maul and massacre the language at every twist and turn”. Here, the Academy publicly reveals its perception of the public perception of the Academy. It is an unedifying read, showing how deeply and determinedly the Academy has misunderstood some of the criticism levelled at it, and showcasing what is now a familiar strain of petulant self-righteousness.

Had I encountered the QES when I was young and knew even less than I know now, I might in my naïveté have paid them some heed. When you’re unsure of something, it’s natural to defer to authority, however unsound it turns out to be. The QES seeks to influence how English is used and taught, but it clings to strange and erroneous ideas about language. There is a poignant clue in the note, no longer online, that its Academy was founded by two members of the Society which “until then had had little contact with the outside world”.

The English language, far from being mortally threatened by the non-standard onslaughts of foreigners, young people, and commoners, is really doing all right. It does not need an academy to protect it, still less to champion its most privileged dialect. Joseph Priestley recognised this centuries ago. Education and literacy are very important, but they cannot be achieved or effectively promoted through a morass of ignorance, insults, and fear-mongering.

Language is endlessly playful and fascinating, but this is too often obscured by stern and gloomy authoritarians who never tire of haranguing people over shibboleths and exploiting their anxieties over minor and imaginary faux pas. You don’t have to listen to them. You don’t even have to visit their websites, unless you’re a glutton for punishment like me.

But I do recommend that you visit the Anti-Queen’s English Society and the Proper English Foundation for a generous, rational, and enjoyable appreciation of language, and more laughs than you might be expecting.

*

For a convenient collection of commentaries on the Queen’s English Society, see the end of my earlier post. For more on the stubborn popularity of groundless peeving, see this repository of links at Language Log, or my own posts on peeves and peevology.

I’ve also been tweeting about this; if you’re the tweeting type, you can find me here.

Updates: At his excellent Baltimore Sun blog You Don’t Say, John E. McIntyre has posted a follow-up to the above, in which he writes that the QES and its Academy “retain a capacity to do harm, to the extent that readers, particularly if any of them are teachers, heed their humbug”. Precisely.

Josh Rahn at The Writing Source objects to “the overtly classist tone evident in much of the society’s literature”.

In a rousing call for grammatical revolution, Joe McVeigh responds in satirical kind by announcing “the dawning of the Age of Avant Garde Grammar” and retrospectively creating (I think) the President’s Finnish Society to help “rid Standard Finnish of vulgar slang and foreign words”.

.

* The Academy describes gay as a fad word, and hopes it will “[slip] into oblivion”. How’s that for contemporary?

15 Responses to Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it.

  1. Congratulations, Stan, on a great post. I’ve always wondered what they mean by ‘The Queen’s English’. They have presumably forgotten, or didn’t know, that The Queen is Head of State in 16 countries, each with its own variety or varieties of English. Do they mean the way The Queen speaks? If so, that has changed over the years and her successors in turn will speak differently. It’s an impressive-sounding but woolly term, which I suppose suits the QES and their academicians well enough.

  2. With sanction the QES is hoist by its own petard. Personally I would like to see QES members to take the silver corn cobs from out of their arses and accept that languages constantly develop.

    Better still I would love to send them to somewhere like my mum’s hometown Millstreet or. better still, to deepest Kerry to learn ’em some culshie!

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I tripped over the QES website about a year ago, and almost took them seriously, before I realized that they were language nazis. Everybody has the right to join a club, as long as they don’t use it to take people away in the night. What I’ve found is that the QES represents the dark side of Zoroastrianism, or Yin and Yang, or Tory vs. Labor, or Republicans vs. Democrats. Like all true believers, and their cousins, the conspiracy theorists, you can hit them with all the facts you like, but you won’t change their minds. It reminds me of the old saw; you can always tell a woman, but you can’t tell her much. Or, in a slightly different vein, they’re more to be pitied than scorned (I take that back; they deserve all the scorn we can heap up). Great post. I look forward to the next one.

  4. Stan says:

    Barrie: Thanks very much. I’d say only a tiny minority of people speak like the Queen, and as you say it changes with each monarch. I think “the Queen’s English” is often conflated with Standard English; maybe that’s what is meant in this case. There’s no disputing the significance of Standard English, but its prestige does not owe to inherent superiority over any other dialect, and competence in it does not imply mastery of prose. I think these points have traditionally been overlooked by many pedagogues.

    Jams: I think they begrudgingly admit that languages change constantly, but they struggle to keep pace with this change, preferring to take their cues from sources now outdated in many respects. I think it would do them the world of good to spend time in rural Kerry – but that goes for everyone!

    Marc: Thank you. I don’t care for that “old saw” you relate, mind. The QES are extreme prescriptivists, and they give the moderate types a bad name. I don’t expect to change their minds, though there were occasional acknowledgements in the comments of my earlier post that some of what I said was valid. There will always be people seeking advice on grammar, usage, and style, and it would be in their interests not to get it from the Academy. I don’t know if I’ll be writing about it again, but I will update this post (or the older one) if there’s a good reason to.

  5. guyilannoa says:

    A year or more ago you beat this subject into a pulp, so I’m sorry to see you rehashing it by renewing your vendetta. I had some correspondence at the time with a representative of the Society and he impressed me as being a friendly and charming gentleman. You may not agree with their objectives but you could at least respect a well-intentioned position, and just ignore it, as many others may do. I just can’t understand the satisfaction you get out of catching them out on a misuse of English or generally browbeating them.

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks for your visit and comment, guyilannoa. Beat the subject to a pulp? Hardly. There’s a lot wrong and objectionable on the QES and Academy websites; I chose a few items and challenged them. Nor is it a vendetta: This is my second post on the matter, and I would be glad were it the last. I too have enjoyed pleasant discussions with QES members and sympathisers, but this doesn’t bear on the points I’ve made (and which I didn’t make for my satisfaction).

    The Academy’s wish to help and improve people’s English is fine and sincere, as far as I can tell, but the Academy does not know enough about the subject, and it has a tendency to be rather unpleasant about it. I know too many people who were abused for nothing more egregious than using their natural dialect. It would be nice to think we had moved beyond that.

  7. The worry is that some people will take these amateurs seriously. If anything is a threat to the English language, it’s the existence of groups like the QES.

  8. […] differences in small talk, including Americans’ skill at saying goodbye. Stan Carey saw no sense in an academy of English and discussed an Irish […]

  9. The Ridger says:

    Oh, dear. I looked at their page and see that they deplore jargon. Well and good, but they shoot themselves in the foot with their example. “Proactive” doesn’t mean “active” or even “spontaneously active”. You couldn’t substitute “active” for it in most of its uses without destroying the meaning of the sentence.

  10. The Ridger says:

    ps – Isn’t The Queen’s English just based on the Fowler book, but updated since there’s a queen now?

  11. Stan says:

    Barrie: Yes, that’s a concern. Several reputable media outlets – newspapers and radio stations among them – have given the QES an uncritical platform, thereby amplifying the ignorance.

    The Ridger: That’s true about proactive. Since the website doesn’t seem likely to just disappear any time soon, I wish its creators at least attended to the more blatant errors and misinformation (and the nastiness). But I don’t expect them to.

    I don’t know if the name was inspired by the Fowlers’ book or not. Certainly the QES admires the Fowlers (as do I), but it doesn’t make many allowances for all that has changed and been discovered in the decades since.

  12. Oh, Stan… thanks for the shout-outs, but surely by now you know that the force of the QES compels me to troll satirically your article! It must be so, I’m afraid. There are many myths about the Proper English Foundation, to which I shall respond now:
    – It does not exist to replace the armed forces
    – It is not against copy editing, though we did intentionally break our delete button to avoid this
    – It does not exist to perform surgery or country & western hits
    – It fully supports the reinstatement of Fatuous Codswallop, the best chairman the QES ever had
    – It did not steal any fire from any gods
    He who thinks otherwise is a babbling… er… serf. (Sigh.) I’m tired. It just goes round in circles: the PEF react to the QES’s ill-considered reaction to everyone’s reaction to their Academy. If they’ve learned nothing else from this, at least they’re not as rowdy as they were.

  13. Stan says:

    You’re very welcome, PEF web-Mister. It’s a pleasure to see you and your beatifically unsplit infinitive. Things got a bit circular, yes, but the PEF website more than makes up for my meandering protests at the QES’s ill-mannered misinformation. The least I could do was to encourage language lovers to familiarise themselves with your inspired mischief.

    I confess to grave disappointment at your reluctance to perform Country & Western hits. I remain hopeful, however, that this injunction does not extend to Country & Western non-hits. Think of all the non-standard unclassics like “You Done Tore Out My Heart And Stomped That Sucker Flat”, whose musical hooks are a particularly insidious apparatus by which phony propriety might be fatally undermined.

    (Readers can, if they wish, compare the preceding comment with an example of what it lampoons.)

  14. […] the Finnish language. But those fools just don’t realize that two is better than one. Duh!Read all about it. Share this:EmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  15. […] year, in a rant about the misnamed and misguided Academy of Contemporary English, I wrote: Languages have many rules, most of which are understood implicitly by native speakers. […]

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