The gloves are off

8th September 2006 at 01:00
The idea of a zero-tolerance approach to English is enough to make a language professor weep - if not roar, writes Sue Palmer

The Fight for English: how language pundits ate, shot and left. By David Crystal. Oxford University Press pound;9.99

The success of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves must have left many people feeling miffed. Professor Nigel Hall, for instance, who told Ms Truss the panda joke that became her title. John Richards who by setting up the Apostrophe Protection Society first alerted her to the potential market for punctuation rage. People like me who have for years earned a modest living by writing English grammar books. (Indeed, if all the people who have said to me, "Why didn't you write that book - you'd be a millionaire?"

were laid end to end, I'd be able to stamp very hard on their faces.) But imagine being the person who knows more about the English language than anyone else, a professor who's spent a lifetime trying - with enormous patience - to educate us about contemporary linguistics, the Government adviser who's finally achieved a fragile balance in the national curriculum between old-fashioned prescriptive and newfangled descriptive approaches to grammar. Imagine how miffed he must feel when a journalist with no linguistic qualifications writes an international bestseller with a subtitle, "the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation", that sums up everything he's been fighting against for almost half a century.

"Why did they buy it?" David Crystal asks incredulously in his prologue.

"What did they hope they would get out of it? Did they actually read it? What is it that makes people think a book on punctuation will somehow solve their imagined language problems?" The thought of people buying into a zero-tolerance approach to something as important as the language they share makes him want to weep.

I have personal experience of Crystal's linguistic tolerance, as back in the 1990s he was appointed consultant on a primary language scheme I was writing. Correcting and commenting on endless books, notes and copymasters, he was kind, generous and balanced. But while he taught me to abhor the zero-tolerance approach of prescriptive grammarians, whose obsession with pointless shibboleths like split infinitives perpetuated a linguistic class system, he also taught the evils of a libertarian "anything goes"

mentality. He was clear that children need to know about grammar, spelling and punctuation because they need them to produce clear standard written English at school and later at work.

This sensitive, balanced approach is set out in The Fight For English, along with the two key principles Crystal recommends to achieve it: first, language must be appropriate (fit both for purpose and for the context in which it's used) and second, it must be clear (expressing meaning as precisely and accessibly as possible). His own writing - elegant, accessible, illuminating - illustrates these principles admirably as the book takes us on an historical tour of the evils of linguistic zero-tolerance through the ages, with particular attention to those 18th-century grammarians whose personal (and often nonsensical) prejudices are still used today to perpetuate class distinctions and social division.

This is what rouses Crystal to an uncharacteristically intemperate outburst: "When I see people still being conned - made to feel threatened or inferior because a linguistically brainwashed boss or radio listener or teacher threatens all hell if infinitives are split or prepositions ended - then I get cross. And when I see the same rubbish being promulgated 250 years on in books written by well-intentioned people who say they care about the language while cheerfully admitting to not having any qualifications at all to talk about it, then I get very cross."

So, yes, I think we can say he's definitely miffed. Nevertheless - give or take an apostrophe - Crystal is now recognised as our most influential contemporary language guru, and his humane, liberal approach to language study and usage has been adopted by the educational establishment and the BBC. As he admits in his closing lines, despite Ms Truss and her ilk, the fight for English is drawing to a close - and Crystal's is the winning side.

This is, however, rather like proclaiming the end of history. Now that the establishment has accepted and embraced a balanced approach to teaching and using English, we're left wondering what's going to happen next, especially since there hasn't been any noticeable improvement in schoolchildren's literacy skills, or in their capacity to speak clearly and cogently. I suspect this is what exercises the zero-tolerance faction, and it's no coincidence that Ms Truss's follow-up book - on the growth of discourtesy in society - is called Talk to the Hand.

Indeed, despite my admiration for his work, I'm uneasy about the faith Crystal appears to put in the national curriculum for English ("second to none") and national literacy strategy. He seems not to notice that since the curriculum was devised, huge numbers of children have slipped into a solitary, sedentary, screen-based lifestyle which is undoubtedly affecting their language and learning development. So while Crystal's fight for English may be drawing to a close, I fear the battle to teach speaking, listening, reading and writing in an atomised multimedia world has only just begun.

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