A rose by any other name: Shakespeare was quite happy to sign his name Shakspere or Shakspeare
The great grammarian Otto Jespersen, writing in 1909, said English grammar was “not a set of stiff dogmatic precepts, according to which some things are correct and others absolutely wrong”; but was living and developing, “founded on the past” but preparing the way for the future, “something that is not always consistent or perfect, but progressing and perfectible – in one word, human”.
Language has been changing since the Tower of Babel and will continue to do so. The most conservative of traditionalists admit this, and claim to accept it, though they are oddly shy about putting forward examples of change they are happy with. Just think for a moment about technological change and how it drives language. Some of us can remember when spam was a sort of cheap ham they made into fritters for our school dinners. Happy days.
A lot of people seem to think all change must be for the worse. Such fears, as relating to language, date from at least the 18th century. Usage, particularly spelling, had been fluid until then: a law passed in Elizabeth I’s reign used the alternative spellings briberie and briberye in the same sentence and Shakespeare was, to say the least, relaxed about how to spell words (including his own name). Samuel Johnson and others sought to bring some order to the chaos. Johnson produced his dictionary (to replace the one, you may remember, burned by Blackadder and Baldrick) in 1755. The two most important grammar books of the period, by Lindley Murray in 1795 and Robert Lowth in 1862, had a huge influence until well into the 20th century. These are the men you can thank for such “rules” as not splitting infinitives. The OED, which started to appear in sections from 1888, was a big step towards settling things. The grammarians, notably HW Fowler with his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), continued that process. By the time I started at school, in the 1950s, English teachers had a very firm idea of exactly what was and wasn’t right. Even when they were wrong.
This brings me to the descriptive v prescriptive argument. For at least 50 years almost all academic linguistics has been descriptive, concerning itself with how language is structured and used without passing judgment on what is right or wrong. Lexicographers, similarly, work by establishing that a word is in use with a particular meaning. If it does, they will put it in the dictionary and ignore the howls of protest from those who think this is providing respectable cover for the barbarians who want to wreck our beautiful language.
Does this mean that things are getting worse? Lynne Truss, who wrote a book about punctuation, typified such fears when she referred to “the justifiable despair of the well educated in a dismally illiterate world”. According to this argument, it all started to go wrong in the 1970s “when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression”.
People have been wittering on like this for centuries. Conservatives long for a golden age, usually about 50 years in the past, when everyone knew their grammar and all was right with the world. “What is more, even Grammar, the basis of all education, baffles the brains of the younger generation today … There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter” – not Michael Gove, but William Langland (born 1332!). Sadly, there never was a golden age. The privately educated actor Dirk Bogarde described his astonishment when he joined the army in the 1940s on finding that all the men in his platoon, who were state educated, were in effect illiterate. Yet this was the era when, according to Truss, most people did “know how to write”. I attended a grammar school as one of the top 10% or so who passed the 11-plus. Even among this elite, many took little interest in English grammar and even those who did had forgotten most of it by the time they got to university. We had to take a Use of English exam in between O-level and A-level to address concerns over – you guessed it – declining standards. So much for the golden age.
For their part, academics have a pretty poor record of explaining descriptive linguistics to the public and can come across as aloof and arrogant. (There are exceptions, such as the great David Crystal.) Can there ever be peace, when the two sides are so entrenched? Or must they for ever be in conflict, like the farmer and the cowman in Oklahoma!? I’d like to think there is a middle way that doesn’t condemn but does help people to gain confidence in their use of language. I am not arguing that everything is perfect; far from it. But there’s no sound evidence that standards are worse than when Lynne Truss and I were at school. And rather than blame it all on teachers and the national curriculum, the why-oh-why-are-things-so-awful-it-was-so-much-better-in-my-day lobby might wonder why it is that many of the worst language abuses come from people who have actually been well (often expensively) educated: politicians and business people, for example. It’s not schoolchildren who spout drivel like “change that makes a difference for hardworking families” and “owning the strategic roadmap for the goods-buying platform”.
This is an edited extract from For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, by David Marsh (Guardian Faber). David Marsh and NM Gwynne, author of Gwynne’s Grammar, will debate “Questions of Grammar” at Kings Place, London, on Monday. Tickets available here.