Speaking of English . . .

20th October 1995 at 01:00
So, Trevor McDonald has been appointed Henry Higgins, and will be expected to teach the English how to speak. No one knows what George Bernard Shaw would have thought, but Gillian Shephard's appointment of the ITV newscaster to head a task force to stamp out "communication by grunt" has made everyone else rabbit on.

Mr McDonald will be drawing together his own committee and setting his own agenda, so with details thin on the ground, all the commentators can say what they like. The Guardian points out that Mrs Shephard's aim is not that the whole of the land should "speak proper", but that children should be helped to communicate in ways which effectively convey what they mean. But there are worries about the effect of the campaign - and the promise of a GCSE grade in spoken English - on the rich diversity of regional speech.

The Independent says that "there is a big difference between promoting confident oral performance and suffocating regional accents with the Queen's English". They fear that Mrs Shephard's campaign "sadly sounded more like the latter than the former".

Meanwhile, the announcement has prompted everyone to indulge in a bit of Brit-bashing, and, amazingly, the Americans are held up as a role model - even the tourists. The Indie says: "Anyone who has ever stopped to chat to an American or Australian tourist will agree that they are generally more articulate than their fellow English-speakers, the Brits.

"But the British oral problem is not one of grammar, it is one of confidence and practice. The advantage the Americans have is not that they are taught a strict spoken grammar, nor that they have regional accents drummed out of them; it is that the whole of their culture teaches them to speak out and keep talking, while their British counterparts are expected to be seen and not heard."

Natasha Walter in the Guardian agrees: "It will take a lot more than a campaign for better English to change our speaking culture. It would require the breaking down of our class system, the shaking up of our education system, and a whole cultural shift towards a can-do, or can-say mentality."

As for the campaign itself, the Financial Times thinks it is jolly silly - particularly the idea that the nation's speech could be improved through a "grammar on the buses" initiative inspired by Poems on the Underground. It says: "Posters warning of the consequences of fare-dodging might be rephrased to offer the same message in more complex grammatical forms. They might be expanded to carry an added caution on the embarrassment caused by a dropped 'h'."

For our further edification, the FT has produced its own sample grammatical poem on London buses, including these lines: Subject, object, substantive verb, Recited as we leave the kerb.

So move down inside, with syn- tax unmangled Infinitives unsplit, prepositions undangled.

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