Mangling the English Language

 Lost for Words is a book about mangling and manipulating the English language – and it is wonderful.

The dedication at the front of the book reads: “To my grandchildren, struggling to learn to speak, in the hope that English will be as important to them as it has been to me.”

For obvious reasons (copyright) I cannot share much of it but as a reviewer I am allowed to quote a few bits. The author’s prime source of irritation appears to be grammar.  As is mine.

Regular readers will know that I keep banging on (colloquial) about the inappropriate use of prepositions.  Winston Churchill instructed his press and secretarial staff about the placement of the preposition “with”.

“A preposition at the end of a sentence is something up with which I will not put,”  he expostulated (look that one up).

John Humphrys, the author of the book to which I refer (note word order) fulminates against newspaper journalists, radio broadcasters (of which he was one) and television presenters. I shall quote just two sentences.

“Vocabulary is a tricky area – but not as tricky as grammar. I may not worry too much about prepositions but I loathe split infinitives.”

And so say all of us when we read a newspaper, most of which have deleted their sub-editors and proof readers. Check an issue with your red highlighter.

I shall give you one more quote, this time not from Mr Humphrys but his quote from the famous author Kingsley Amis, so I feel that I am allowed to “on-quote”. It’s about “berks” and “wankers”.

“Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own; wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own.”

Now was Kingsley Amis a berk ... or a wanker? And does it matter? We meet both of them every day down at the pub. Maybe I am one of them. Mr Humphrys then goes on to give a serve to radio broadcasters and television presenters.

“The best advice when you’re on the radio or television is to “keep it simple stupid.”  KISS. That’s not because your audience is stupid, it’s because you have to keep it live and linear.

Your audience cannot backspace, as you can on your computer, so think before you speak.

When teaching radio, television and film production at universities I had constantly to remind students (not to split the infinitive!) that their job was to be the audience/viewers before writing the script.

In radio, it is best to stick to the rule of subject-verb-object. Forget putting a subordinate clause before the main one. In television, the rule is “do not describe what is on the screen”. 

“Here we see a ...”  If we can see it, don’t tell us. Tell us what we can’t see, which is the reason why we are looking. 

It’s basic television training, but so often unknown to the cub reporter who is looking so good with outfit and manner! And the reporter usually fumbles delivery because he/she has not been trained in live, on-air speaking to camera. That is a very special skill.

“The Premier will today announce ....”  No, she won’t. She will not split her verbs and we had the press release yesterday.

And even worse, “later today she will announce ... “  Well, she is not going to announce it earlier today or yesterday, is she? Think, before you speak.

It’s the same with the police media.

“Asked to comment, a police spokesperson (person? Whatever happened to man and woman?)  said: the two vehicles have come into collision and one person has become deceased, while two others have been transported to hospital in a critical but stable condition. Our investigations are ongoing”.

Please, police media people, tell your officers to forget ‘has’ and ‘have’. Use the active voice, not the passive voice when talking to the media. 

In English, the officer should have said “there was a crash between two cars, one man died and another two have been taken to hospital”. End of story.

And do we really need to know this? 

“So, we journalists are no better and no worse than everyone else who uses the common language. We mangle with the best of them. But we have a particular responsibility and we should not be allowed to get away with it. There should be a permanent row about usage.”

Thank you, John Humphrys; and I have been trying to make a permanent row for the last two years. The result, sadly, is who cares?

Lost for Words - the Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language by John Humphrys, Hodder and Stoughton.