Lost for Words: the mangling and manipulation of the English language

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Lost for Words: the mangling and manipulation of the English language

By John Humphrys

Hodder Stoughton pound;14.99

Radio 4's Mr Grumpy is on grand form. With considerably more wit and venom than he is allowed to display each morning on the Today programme, he lambasts those who abuse the English language deliberately, unthinkingly or through wondrous ignorance. Caught in his sights are politicians, advertisers, business gurus, bureaucrats and fellow broadcasters.

He boggles, with some sympathy, at the teacher who regretted that, even by the end of her training, she had no idea of the difference between a noun and a verb, but also has much scorn for the educational system. He reminds us of a survey this summer which revealed that 48 per cent of universities have had to introduce literacy courses for first-year students; and recalls the lament of a GCSE examiner forced to give C grades to students who repeatedly wrote "of" for "have" as in "I could of danced all night".

He also quotes a comment written by a primary school teacher on an eight-year-old's composition: "I'm sure you could of written it a lot neater." As he says: "Three howlers in one sentence. God help every child in her class." He enjoys mocking David Blunkett for hoping (in his days as education secretary) "to extend the intensification of the gateway"; the Department for Education and Skills for its management-speak, jargon and acronyms; and the author of a key stage 3 English test who wanted the nation's children to write about "positive and negative" ways with pets.

If this leads you to scream "language fascist", be warned. Old Humph is quite aware that English is constantly changing; that the spoken and written word are different and that occasionally it is all right to use a preposition to end a sentence with. He even concedes that it is acceptable to occasionally split an infinitive, as does Professor David Crystal, whom Humphrys admires but labels an "anything goes" man for arguing that English need only be intelligible. Humphrys wants the language to be versatile, nuanced, and impossible to misunderstand.

English teachers will find a wealth of material here to use in class (but will regret that the book has no index). For example, he offers a sentence to teach the correct use of "only". Try placing it at various points in this sentence: "Tony Blair listens to Gordon Brown's advice." He has collected together some wonderfully awful euphemisms, such as Camden's new name for the office where you pay parking fines, Camden Parking Solutions.

He cites horrific misuse of language by unthinking journalists: "For the second time in six months, a prisoner at Durham jail has died after hanging himself in his cell."

Inevitably, this book will be compared with Lynne Truss's bestselling defence of proper punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Because Humphrys is dealing with a much larger subject, his book is less focused and has a less clearly defined shape: his chapters could be rearranged in a variety of orders. It's possible to nit-pick. He seems unaware that English has a perfectly respectable tense called the historic present and is confused about the English Speaking Board. But while he will infuriate the linguistically insecure, he also offers hours of happy browsing for those who hate plural verbs with singular subjects; and who loathe people "who think out of the box" or are "stressed" rather than merely "tired".

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