Since I shall spend the rest of this article attacking this book, I should say at once that it is well worth reading. It is crisply written, amusing, informative and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the English language and its history should read it.
But it tells you a lot about a book to identify whom the author sees as the enemy. Henry Hitchings has one enemy, and whenever its troops appear in view, his normal good humour deserts him. He divides people who interest themselves in language into descriptivists and prescriptivists. The former observe how language actually is, and record its migrations, mating habits, habitat and so on, like birdwatchers. He approves of them. The latter say how language should be, and endeavour to make rules – even, sometimes, laws – about what is proper. Mr Hitchings hates the prescriptivists.
How he turns his sarcasm upon those who have tried to establish what is “correct”. How he excoriates the “grumblers, fault-finders, quibblers and mudslingers”. How gleefully he points out that those who try to regulate, elevate, preserve or purify the language are “really” acting out of political motives or expressing, in their various distastes, “a reaction that is pointedly social”, rather than linguistic. Grammatical martinets, he says, often know little about grammar, “But they like the idea of grammar because they see in its structures a model of how they would like society to be”.
In a way, Mr Hitchings is right. Language always changes – none more so than English – and it is owned by all its users, not by any priest, politician or professor. The word language derives from the Latin word for a tongue: everyone has a tongue, and we are all more or less free to wag it as we please. Anyone who states that a usage is eternally correct is likely to be wrong. It is untrue, for example, that it is necessarily bad to start a sentence with And. The King James Bible, 400 years old this year, frequently and triumphantly does so.
But in attacking the people whom he sees as pedants, Mr Hitchings is picking an easy target and, in modern times, a peripheral one. The problem with English today is not the stern, punitive schoolmaster who wants to pin language down as a collector kills his butterflies. All those begowned men whom I am just old enough to remember who shouted things like ” Get only means obtained” have long been expelled from the classroom. It is the opposite school of thought which now prevails – the idea that any way of writing, spelling, punctuating or speaking is equally “valid”, and that dialects, ethnic minority usage and slang are more equally valid than anything “received”, “standard”, or traditional. This doctrine, which is just as “prescriptive” as what it attacks, causes ignorance and confusion.
In order to test my own reading of this book, I have deliberately avoided finding out anything about the author beyond what is written in the blurb. He was born in 1974 and is the theatre critic of the Evening Standard. I would bet a large sum of money that he attended a very good university, and probably a major public school, too. He writes with the easy confidence of a well-educated man, so grounded in the history of English, so accustomed to comparing it with other tongues, that he can afford to play with it and urge everyone else to defy its conventions. If he was in fact born in a council house in South Shields and educated at a comprehensive which he left aged 16, I shall withdraw my argument and admit defeat.
Since Mr Hitchings says that all attitudes to language are political, he should be more aware of his own politics. They appear to be posh-anarchic, boho-snob. In his mind, poor, ignorant, street people are good, because they have an authentic earthiness to them. Clever, lambent, ironic, super-educated people like himself are good, too, obviously. The baddies are the suburban people in between, who clip their privet hedges and defend the semi-colon.
Well, it’s all right for some. The author pooh-poohs “hysterical comment, especially in the US” which “presents functional illiteracy as a disease threatening to eat away the very core of society”. Yet he concludes his book by saying that language is “the instrument that has enabled us to create the world in which we live together”. Does he seriously think that, in modern society’s version of that world, people can be fulfilled language-users if they cannot read or write? If Mr Hitchings has children, does he dream of bringing them up without making sure that they can read and write very well indeed? Yet millions of our citizens are illiterate. In most cases, this is because they have been negligently taught or not taught at all. The King’s Speech is an excellent new film about the agony of not being able to speak without stammering. It is an equal agony not to be able to use English properly. Mr Hitchings eschews the rules: he can do that only because he knows them. The majority is not so lucky. The despised prescriptivists are like beat police officers in Britain today. Their job is to uphold the law in increasingly adverse circumstances.
Clever, better-educated people like Mr Hitchings point out how “heavy-handed” they are, and no doubt they are not always subtle. But they do more to protect the disadvantaged from harm than he does.
Charles Moore, The Telegraph