English speakers: please stop murdering your language!

23 Jul

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) has a regular column for teachers, i.e. What keeps me awake at night, in which they recount horror tales out of school…..  I decided to stick my neck out, even though I am a “was teacher” and, for my sins, am now an educational consultant, by sending the editor a piece on the poor English that people in the educational establishment write – in letters, articles, pupils’ reports and even books.   Alas, the article has not seen the light of print.  I understand, as the column is meant to be for teachers, which I am currently not.   This has compelled me to use my website to air my concerns and vent my feelings.

We have examples galore of people in the British Isles mauling their own language.   Take this classic road sign which was meant to be a warning to motorist: “Slow workers at work!” What exactly is the notice aiming to do?  Drawing attention to poor British workmanship seems to be the strident message here, albeit the notice may have something to do with warning motorist to drive slowly and with care.

To take a leaf off Disraeli’s cutting comment to Gladstone, may I remark that a notice such as the one above is a misfortune; however, when British academics maul English, it is a calamity.   And many do by using opaque language and torture words into oblivion.  Also, while grammar is very much on the teaching timetable in schools, our pedagogues do not pay sufficient heed to the nuances of written English.

I am not talking about beginning a sentence with a conjunction or ending one with a preposition.  I recognise that English is an organic language and mutates with the passage of time.    Accordingly, it is not unknown for wordsmiths to pioneer new forms of writing.  And many of our writers do just that.  (There goes, I’ve just began a sentence with a conjunction – and there are couple of more above.)

John Humphrys, the media inquisitor, tells us in his very compelling book, Lost for Words, of a young man from rural Mississippi who won a scholarship to Harvard.  On his first day, he asked a pair of savvy socialites: “Hey, y’all!  Where’s the library at?” Sniggering, they replied: “We prefer not to end a sentence with a preposition.”

“Okay,” responded the Mr Rural Mississippi, “Where’s the library at, assholes!”

Exchanges like the above, add spice to life.  I welcome such encounters. What I am referring to is the manner in which those working at the education torture English by mixing their singulars with plurals in a badly concocted paella that ends up giving me indigestion.   The Times Educational Supplement, no less, provides some stunning examples.   Let’s look at a few.

Adi Bloom, quotes Jo Paoletti, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in the USA about gender differences: “A person (singular) studying their (plural) own culture is like a fish (singular) studying their (plural) own goldfish bowl.”

An Australian teacher, who had a published TES article on how punishment can have its own rewards wrote in the same issue: “Clearly, if a student (singular) is going to change their (plural) ways then they need to reflect on the consequences of their behaviour…..We don’t want the student (singular) to miss out on their education.”

And the article of an infant teacher from one of the Home Counties about children meeting with accidents teems with singular errors such as:

“In one case I know of, a child (singular) who managed to wet themselves (plural).

“If you suspect a child (singular) has soiled themselves (plural), take them to one side and ask if they need help.”

“Most importantly, think about how you would like the child (singular) to be treated if they (plural) were your own.”

A recent What keeps me awake at night article began thus: “Picture this: a teacher in their late forties or early fifties, still physically fit, starts forgetting the odd thing here and there.” From when does not person become more than one?

Because of our fixation with equal opportunities, we are keen not to place either gender on a pedestal and so, when we talk about a child, we try to be gender neutral and say that the child can be as much a girl as a boy.   Using the “she or he” may sound cumbersome; so it becomes politic to switch the singular ‘child’ to the plural ‘children’ and deploy the pronoun, ‘they’ which will make the English that much more elegant.

However, it is not only about number mistakes, which are numerous.  Words are misused.   Here is one from the TES:  “…every teacher can have a voice and partake in proceeding in a structured way”.  I thought that one can partake only of a meal or banquet but participate in an activity.

Another word that is commonly misused to death is “myself”.   The sentence found in the newsletter of a secondary headteacher is a classic example.  He writes to parents in a March 2014 newsletter: “All students will be visited at their primary school by myself or a member of SLT in the summer term.”   I was taught at school in the dim past never to put myself first when speaking or writing being warned that only a donkey does that.  The sentence could easily have been crafted thus: “All students will be visited either by a member of the SLT or me.”

Journals, newspapers, TV programmes and, sometimes, books, are swirling with examples of authors and presenters confusing number with quantity, thus compromising the quality of the English they use.   Audrey Ward and George Arbuthnott, writing in the Focus page of The Sunday Times on 20 July 2014, reported on Patrick McLoughlin’s, the transport secretary’s, announcement to double the punishment for those caught using a handheld mobile phone while driving to six penalty points.  McLoughlin said: “The amount of casualties has been absolutely appalling…” and so is your English, Mr McLoughlin.  To compound the sin, the writers go on to print later in the paragraph: “If the proposals become law, convicted motorists who have been qualified for less than two years would be banned from driving.”   It is worth a teacher with a command of English apprising these three that where you can count, you use “more” and “fewer” and where you are referring to quantity, you deploy “amount”!

I grew up in India.   It was inculcated into me that Britain was the country to be in if I wished to grow in the English language, the language established by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy and Thackeray, among others.   How different it is now that I am domiciled here!

Many years ago, George Bernard Shaw invested considerable time and resources to reform the English spelling.  He failed spectacularly.   I just don’t have that kind of energy, determination or finance to hold back a tide that is causing this beautiful language to morph into an ugly monster.  I tried so hard and failed to tell the TES that it was this that keeps me awake at nights…….  and like Humphrys, who has a soul-mate in George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins, I too, am lost for words.

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