Wednesday 6 December 2006

On having a row with John Humphrys

Someone has just asked me what my feelings are about John Humphrys' attack on me in his latest book, Beyond Words.

For those who haven't read this, it's in Chapter 1, where after a paragraph introducing me to his readership he says that I 'infuriate' him, and goes on to say why. I'm used to people ascribing views to me that I don't hold - it's something language pedants routinely do, as I explain in my recent OUP book, The Fight for English - and usually I just live with it. But the pastiche of me that JH presents is so bizarre that I thought it needed a reaction. So I wrote to him a month ago and we've been engaged in an amicable correspondence since. The most convenient way of answering my correspondent is to post some extracts from that letter, as follows.

'Do I truly ‘infuriate’ you (your p.23)? Or is this one of those words, like ‘passionate’, which you would have no truck with if someone else used it? Your problem surely is that, if you use ‘infuriate’ for the likes of me, what words are there left to express your anger when you come across miscarriages of justice that are orders of magnitude greater than what I am assumed to say?

'Note my phrasing. You really are getting me wrong, you know, and your ascription of the various views to me in your Chapter 1 is so far from the truth that it is virtual linguistic character assassination! When The Fight for English came out, and an Observer journalist rang around for soundbites [the article appeared under the heading 'Language guru takes on queen of commas'], you are quoted as saying that I say ‘rules don’t matter that much’. I have never said that, ever. I don’t know where you would have got that idea from. Of course rules are important. I say so myself in many places. I’ve written two grammars of English where the importance of rules is repeatedly stressed. I know exactly how many grammatical rules there are in English. I teach courses on grammar. To say to a linguist that he or she doesn’t like rules is simply absurd.

'What I’m against are artificial rules – rules which have no basis in reality, or only a limited basis, but which people hang on to like grim death despite the fact that the language has changed (which means the grammar has changed, which means that the rules have changed). All the ones you mention, such as the split infinitive, the end-placed preposition, the use of initial conjunctions, the dangling participle, the use of only, and so on, are like this. You acknowledge that some of these are silly, but you hang on to others. If, as you now say,’context is everything’ (p. 148), then – for example - you have to allow that some dangling participial constructions and some non-adjacent only-placements are perfectly OK, because the context makes it perfectly clear what is being said.

' ‘Context is everything’. I say almost exactly that on p. 152 of The Fight for English, and in many of my other writings. And it is this, along with several other things you say in your new book, which leads me to believe that actually our two positions are not as far apart as you may think. More on this below.

'Actually, your Chapter 1 puzzles me because the thrust of it has little to do with the rest of your book. Its argument concludes with the recommendation that we bring back grammar so that we can understand what is going on in our world. In the rest of the book you then go on to give examples of this understanding (or lack of it). But at no point thereafter do you talk about grammar. All your examples, from ‘excited’ to ‘awareness’ to ‘lifestyle to ‘demand’ to ‘trust’... are examples of vocabulary (what in linguistics would be part of semantics, not grammar). When you start analysing them, you go into the question of intentions and effects (what in linguistics would be part of pragmatics, again not grammar). You never bring grammar into the equation. So the question in my mind is: why do you place such emphasis on grammar in Chapter 1? It seems totally out of place. (As I mentioned in The Fight for English, I was similarly puzzled by the change of tack in your Lost for Words, where none of the examples of what you think of as bad grammar are ever mentioned in the second half of the book.)

'You say in Chapter 1 that one of the daftest things we ever did in schools was stop teaching grammar. Excuse me, but I said that before you did! During the 1970s I was one of the leaders of the movement to bring grammar back. During the 1980s and 90s I spent hundreds of hours trying to make good the deficiencies in teacher training, wrote Rediscover Grammar to help improve the situation, and was a member of Randolph Quirk’s team that compiled the magisterial Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. I am still doing it. The emphasis is always on the rules of grammar – but on the tendencies, too, where there are no hard-and-fast rules.

'You seem very hung-up on the phrase ‘anything goes’, which you put into my mouth. You use it again at the beginning of Chapter 1. If it applies to anyone, it was to the teachers of creative writing in the 1970s. That’s when I first heard it used – by literature teachers, not by linguists. It was never used by linguists, ever. As I point out in The Fight for English, no linguist would ever say such a stupid thing – it goes totally against the principles of linguistics - and I certainly have never said it. But, as I mention towards the end of The Fight for English, it is the kind of glib phrase that people who don’t like linguists claim they say.

'We need a dependable common language if we are all going to get by, you say. Again, excuse me, but I said that before you did. I’ve written a huge amount about standard English, how it evolved, and why it is important today as a means of ensuring national and international intelligibility. You talk about the attitude of ‘academic experts’, and then refer only to me, so I suppose you must be having me in mind all through that section. Yet I stress the importance of standard English always.

'You say I do not think it matters if we put apostrophes in the wrong place. Sorry, but where on earth did you get that view from? Not from anything I have ever said or written. Of course it matters, in modern standard English. I say so in many places. I would correct ‘Lecturers Pay Dispute’ and the other examples just as much as you would, and it is wrong of you to suggest otherwise. When you talk about my discussion of potato’s – I assume you are referring to p. 455 of my How Language Works – you report only half of what I say. On p. 456 I go on: ‘None of this is to deny the importance of having people learn the standard spelling and punctuation’. Why do you ignore this? If you had one of your interviewees suppress half the truth of a topic, wouldn’t you give him a hard time? ‘Indeed, he says, it is perfectly acceptable in the twenty-first century’. No; he does not say any such thing. All I said was that it was perfectly intelligible, because – as you seem to agree – context is everything. I do not recommend it, either in How Language Works or anywhere else; and it is wrong of you to say that I do.

'You have, it seems, confused explanation with recommendation. When I talk about Johnson and Shakespeare and the others using a plural apostrophe, I am trying to explain why there is a problem in the language – a problem (all to do with words which end in vowels) which is still with us today. But since Johnson’s time, standard English has emerged. The recommendations one would make in the 18th century cannot be the same as one would make today, therefore. Today, we have to follow the rules, otherwise we fall into the traps you mention. You see this. I see this. Why were you not able to see that I see it?

'The answer, I suspect, is that you have developed a mindset about me which makes you see in me only what you want to see. You routinely and rightly try to puncture such mindsets when they blandly present themselves to you on Today. Do I have any chance of persuading you that your own mindset here also needs a bit of puncturing? Here are some other examples.

'You say that the only thing I care about is intelligibility. Intelligibility is all that matters, you say of me. This is not what I have written, in any of my books, where I repeatedly assert that intelligibility is only one criterion of language use. Other criteria include identity, playfulness, and the whole range of pragmatic factors that go under the heading of ‘intention’ – factors which you explore yourself. Once again, I said it before you did! In my Making Sense of Grammar I develop a whole approach to grammar teaching which actually argues that intention as well as meaning is crucial to the understanding of language. I give hundreds of examples. So it just isn’t true to say ‘Professor Crystal would say that if it’s intelligible it’s OK’, when the whole thrust of my work is to say it isn’t. I talk about people feeling at home and not being alienated too.

'You talk about feeling hurt, at one point. Well for me, the greatest hurt, in your opening chapter, is in your closing pages, where you liken me to someone with a lot of money. You say I cannot imagine what it must be like not to have language properly. What you obviously do not know is that I have spent the main part of my research life (as opposed to my popular writing life) working with language handicapped children and adults. I am the author of a widely used tool for analysing the language (including the grammar) of these people. I still do some work with those who look after the linguistic needs of disadvantaged adults and ethnic minorities. One of my own children was born with a cleft palate and I lived with his language problems for three and a half years before he died on the operating table. So, please, no cheap remarks about me being unable to imagine what it must be like not to have language.'

Well, that was in early November. The letter arrived on his desk at a bad time. JH was trying to handle thousands of letters from listeners to his 'Talking About God' series - and he'd also just come back from Iraq. Nonetheless, he took the thrust of my points and apologised for 'traducing' me. He said he would make amends in the following week's Spectator (11 November), where his diary column did indeed address the point. 'I toy with two (inadequate) defences', he said. First, he said, he hadn't read my other books because there are too many of them. And second, as a journalist he said he was following the 'basic law of journalism: First simplify, then exaggerate'. Nothing more for me to say, really.

We then coincidentally found ourselves on the same talk show on Radio Cambridgeshire the following week (he about his book and me about my latest one, As They Say in Zanzibar), and the host cleverly engineered a chat between us, which turned out to be very jolly. JH actually apologised - which must surely be a first in the history of broadcasting! - and we've been having an affable chat since, with the subject-matter moving in other directions. It turns out that we have a shared interest in Africa. In 2005 he set up a splendid charity to help people there who are 'at the bottom of the pile' - it's called the Kitchen Table Charities Trust (see And for the past decade I've been doing some work on behalf of the John Bradburne Memorial Society, whose focus is on the leprosy settlement in Mtemwe, Zimbabwe (see So we ended up thinking about how to help each other promote these enterprises. Africa certainly puts dangling participles and split infinitives in their place! It's nice to think that a row over English usage has ended up with a practical outcome in the real world, for a change.

JH told me that following a charity talk he gave in the North the chairman alluded to our row and cited a Ghanaian proverb from my Zanzibar book: 'Never rub buttocks with a porcupine'. I wonder which of us was supposed to be the porcupine?


Anonymous said...

I read your 'Discover Grammar' years ago and it filled me in on a lot of the stuff that no one ever bothered to teach me at school... needless to say it was very useful.... Anyway, this whole business about rules is *very* Wittgensteinian.... if you claim that the rules for the correct use of language are flexible then a lot of people seem to get rather upset. The basic principle that seems very difficult for them to accept is this: just because there are borderline cases for the application of a rule (in this case in punctuation or grammar) it doesn't mean that all rules are borderline cases i.e. that just because a rule may not work in some cases or may change in the future it doesn't mean that the rule is a worthless one, one that has no correct application. Language has rules otherwise it wouldn't work at all; language's rules need to be able to change for exactly the same reason....

DC said...

Thanks for this. To my mind the issue with JH and other such writers is not about rules, per se, but about the distinction between real rules (which have a basis in actual usage) and artificial rules (which have a basis only in the prescriptivist mind). As you say: there have to be rules, otherwise language wouldn't work.

A real rule is one which applies to a particular variety of a language (eg standard English) at a particular point in time, and it may or may not have exceptions. For instance, right now there is a rule which says that the definite article goes before and not after a noun - no exceptions to that. Always the cat and never cat the. (In some languages, definite articles go after the noun, so it is a real feature of English.) There are exceptions to the rule which says 'add an s to form a plural noun', and these are equally rule-bound - the plural of goose is geese in standard English and never geeses. There's no flexibility in such cases - though of course the situation might change in the future.

It is a different kind of argument when someone, noting that, say, formula has two plurals in standard English - formulae and formulas - applauds one and condemns the other. That is what prescriptivists do, and that is what I am against. I go on about this at some length in my The Fight for English, so perhaps I could refer interested readers to that book for an expansion of this view.

gigglepeppers said...

I know that it's rather late to respond to this entry (by well over a year). I must say that I was born English but left before I was taught any significant amount of grammar (we had only just begun the sentence diagramming). I am increasingly nervous as what I am typing may very well be filled with errors. I just wanted to say you're such an inspirational intellectual and linguist. This letter was brilliantly and tactfully put and I wish that I had an inkling of the command of the English language which you wield so well. It would come in handy in my studies as a second year student of linguistics at an American university. Well, I have purchases your books and hoping that some of your genius has a residual effect!

-Ayana Smith

DC said...

Well, thank you. A comfortable style takes time to develop. Wide reading always helps, as it gives you a sense of who you want to emulate. That's what I did, anyway.

Telamonides said...

It really amazes me that people insist on using Latin grammar to pluralize words in English even though they were borrowed hundreds of years ago (even though both are acceptable).

Anonymous said...

Years later, sorry.

I've just posted this on a rather prescriptivist fb page:

Rules and half-truths.

If you wouldn't reduce the way English plural nouns are made to 'add an s to form a plural noun', why would you reduce the way we use "less and "fewer" to '"fewer" refers to number among things that are counted, and "less" refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured'? Why, if you wouldn't tell half-the-story in former context, would you then go on to tell the half-story in the latter context?

I await answers.

Unknown said...

JH has always infuriated me with his prescriptivist views on language. I understand that an amount of this is always helpful, otherwise there would simply be no rules in our language and we could not hold on to those things that do work or learn from our mistakes, however all I see is yet another person siding with Aitchison's 'crumbling castle' to an unreasonable level and I see that as an unhealthy view. Being an 18 year old, perhaps I am slightly biased, I see the more modern version of the language every day in my social context and many of its major features that may have been unimaginable a few generations ago have slipped into my idiolect, yet people who use language in a way which seems 'wrong' to me do still frustrate me even though I have no idea if they are speaking in a manner which may simply be true to their dialect. In this way I understand some of John's remarks, but to attack writers such as yourself (who do nothing but attempt to enlighten the rest of us as to the beauty of the language) just because you are able to look at it from a far more synchronic view than he is able, seems utterly absurd. Of course I cannot understand what JH's motivations are for his views, but it does seem to me that this is nothing more than an old man who cannot let go of the ideals which he has grown up with (funnily enough the exact same kind of attitude which causes many racial discrimination issues in everyday life). Just some thoughts, written fairly quickly so I hope you will forgive me if my English is not 100% accurate ;) keep up the great work!

Unknown said...

Side note: another interesting pattern that seems to follow is that anybody with a diachronic view of language seems to use the 'split infinitive' as a prime example, but am I correct in believing that this was never actually a true grammatical rule in the first place, but rather an adopted norm?

DC said...

Thanks for your comments. Yes, the split infinitive rule was thought up by someone around the mid-19th century and caught on. It has never been a natural rule in English, as it goes against the basic rhythm of the language.

DC said...

Just came across a clipping from the Spectator (11 November 2006), which I filed away and forgot about, but worth recording here. John Humphrys was writing the Diary column that week, in which he says (after talking about his radio programmes on religion):

'The English language is dangerous territory too. I'm in trouble with David Crystal - perhaps our greatest authority on the subject - for what Ive written about him in my new book. I suggest that he's too relaxed about applying the rules of grammar and he tells me very politely that I've misrepresented his position and obviously haven't read his books. I toy with two (inadequate) defences. One is that he's written more than a hundred books on the subject and I don't believe I've ever read a hundred books by the same author in my whole life. The other is that I'm a journalist, not an academic. The basic law of journalism states, 'First simplify, then exaggerate'. I shall probably not employ this defence. Maybe I'll just promise that I shall write no more books on English. Enough already.'