My title points, not to my own attitude towards pedantry, but to that of Oliver Kamm, whose new column on the subject was launched in The Times on Monday. He is a nephew of Martin Bell and lists among his relatives such illustrious folk as Adrian Bell, the novelist and compiler of the first Times Crossword and Anthea Bell, translator of the Asterix Cartoon.
In his introductory article he described pedantry as an obsession with linguistic precision. It prizes form over style. In support of Pedantry he noted that: Language is constantly changing, and a common form of change is decline. He is correct on both points. In the slow evolutionary climb of complex life from the primal slime, for example, the many billions of random changes that must have occurred in the organisms involved were almost all of them dead ends or retroressive steps. Almost all, but the few and far between changes that bestowed an advantage outweighed the rest in importance. Those that led to decline had, perhaps, their few days and then died out. Those that conferred some improvement, thrived and strengthened the herd or the tribe.
Kamm gave a few examples of what he might be on about over future weeks:The useful word "disinterested", meaning impartial, he wrote, is now widely used as a synonym for uninterested. Furthermore: When you hear the phrase "there is no question that" you need to guess from the context whether the speaker means (wrongly) "it is certain that" or (correctly) the opposite. All these linguistic changes involve loss. Well they do, but he with his literary connections, I woud have thought, might be well placed to realise that more is required of a language than just accuracy, which seems to be his one big thing. Of course, there are forms of writing where accuracy is the one over-riding consideration, but there are others, poetry being one, in which ambiguity is the life blood. And if, as he says, these forms and/or meanings are now widely used, then surely it is the case that they have been adopted as valid forms or meanings by the common usage of which he complains. What worries me is that he stated in his column that This column will deal with language and will prescribe usage.
Kamm did concede at one point that although Conventions in the use of language encourage clarity, there is no merit in conformity for its own sake. For example, more people complain about split infinitves than can explain what is grammatically wrong with them. The reason is that there is nothing wrong with a split infinitive except (usually) avoidable ugliness. Even then there are exceptions: "to boldly go" is a more evocative phrase than to go boldly, as anyone used to reading aloud would recognise. He then went on to speak of the similar case of the final preposition, pointing out that: There are many sentences in English that naturally end with a preposition where it is part of a phrasal verb (to find out; to look up).
That last example reminded me of a story that is told of Winston Churchill. His secretary so the story runs, had had the temerity to correct one of his speeches, a correction that had involved the removal of a final preposition. Churchill reinstated the original text and then wrote in the margin: This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put!
But as for his threat to prescribe usage, it has been tried before. Indeed, organisations dedicated to reforming English spelling have existed for at least four hundred years. In the 16th Century the Royal Society investigated the need for orthographic reform, and eventually formed a committee which included the poet John Dryden. In 1869 the Philological Society endorsed the cause; and the British Spelling Reform Association, which included famous writers like Tennyson and Darwin as well as philologists, was founded in 1879. Others, too, have tried, but it is not the way that the English language has developed and all attempts over the centuries to force it into that mould have failed. Many point to Webster as one who could have reformed the language, but in fact many of the more logical spellings attributed to him were current when he compiled his dictionary. He, too, was merely recording common usage. What happened next, though, was that the acceptance of his dictionary in America caused his spellings to be labelled American, and thus stigmatized, to drop out of use in England. English has always been governed by convention rather than formal code. We have never had anything equivalent to the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) all record usage rather than prescribe it. English has always gone its own way, and that is the strength and beauty of it. All that can be reasonably done is what Fowler did: set down the common usages as they exist at any one time. I have taken spelling as a fairly easily illustrated example, but in fairness should add that I have no way of knowing whether or not Kamm intends to be pedantic about spelling.
Maybe he is thinking of a Standard English. He will run into the same difficulty: there are no official rules for "Standard English" because, unlike some other languages, English does not have a linguistic governance body. Unless he is to set himself up in that role this could become a little repetitious. There is no set standard as there was, for example, a standard yard, kept available in London for the purpose of checking all other yards against it. This small illustration also makes the point that any standardisation would have to be in written form. For spoken English it would be impossible to construct a norm. Neither would a norm be socially or politically desirable, for it would acquire social (eg class) and political overtones as did BBC English, for example. It would inevitably be institutional. My last point is that in so far as there ever has been a standard there is now a double standard, English English and American English. Furthermore, English has become the lingua franca of the political and commercial world. It has been said that it is about to fragment into a very large number of international dialects. It seems to me that the tide is running against Kamm, but I shall watch his column (presumably it is to be every Monday) with great interest.
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