God save the Queen’s English
Responding to ‘Orl abowt speling,’ Alison Irving observed that students already know about vernacular English, and it’s the role of educators to teach Standard English if their students are to produce high-quality writing. Alison is not alone. Brendan O’Neill in ‘The revolutionary potential of the Queen’s English’ argues that accepting ‘variant spelling’ isn’t just dumbing down: it’s dumb.
‘In order to engage with society, with its public life and politics,’ O’Neill argues, ‘you need to fully understand its language. You need to know that the sentence you just read contained a split infinitive, and that some people frown upon those while others think they are okay.
‘You need to know how words are spelt and how they should be arranged in order to achieve both clarity and clout; you need to know what punctuation is for; you need to know what is the best way to write things down in order for them to be understood by the maximum number (not amount) of people.
‘When it comes to language, the rule is that the more you know the rules, the more you can play around with them and twist them for effect, if you like. But you need to know the rules. And it is this knowing of the rules that is called into question these days, by people who think we should stop telling 19-year-old muppets at university that they have spelt things wrong and who even think it’s problematic to say: “I am right and you are wrong.”
Hooray for O’Neill: even his use of ‘problematic’ is correct. Since ‘problematic’ means either questionable or having the nature or appearance of a problem, why can’t people just say ‘questionable’ when they mean questionable or refer to a ‘problem’ when they mean something is a problem? Could it be that ‘problematic’ just sounds more ‘Dubyafied’?
On the Dubyafication of English– that’s the re-wordifying impact of United States Past-President George Dubya Bush on English – it’s worth visiting the ‘Top 10 Misused English Words.’ Even Dubya’s father US Past-President George HW Bush makes an appearance – on the ‘enormity’ or extreme evil, outrageousness, impropriety, viciousness or immorality of his election. Maybe Bush senior meant immensity, although possibly he really did mean enormity.
There’s also a nice irony in the fact that the ‘Top 10 Misused English Words’ is one of the ‘Ultimate Listverse Top 10 Lists’ since ‘ultimate’ comes in in first place: ‘ultimate’ means the last in a list of items, not the best.
Photo by Thomas Dutour courtesy of Dreamstime.com
Read the ‘Top 10 Misused English Words’ here – worth the visit just for the entry on ‘literally.’
Read ‘The revolutionary potential of the Queen’s English’ in Spiked here.
What was O’Neill’s split infinitive?
Do you agree with O’Neill’s assertion that you need to know – and teach – the rules?
If you are not interested in this debate, are you disinterested or uninterested?