Sunday, 17 June 2012


A journalist writes to ask for my view about the recently announced demise of the Queen's English Society (QES).

I'm happy to see it go - both personally (for I was regularly attacked in the pages of its magazine for my linguistic views) and professionally (for we are no longer living in an age which accepts that a few self-appointed individuals can impose their personal linguistic tastes on everyone else). The QES claimed to be an organization that cared about standards, but its own usage - as seen for example on its website - was poor even by those standards. The letter which announced their demise contained several errors of grammar and punctuation, including the omission of commas and even of a sentence-final period! Geoff Pullum has done some excellent analysis of their grammatical infelicities here so I won't go any further into that.

I think people began to lose faith in the QES when it became apparent that much of what they were claiming was simply fantasy. They would assert, for example, that linguists like me say 'anything goes' and don't care about standards. This was simply a travesty. No linguist has ever said 'anything goes'. On the contrary, the whole basis of linguistics is to establish the rules governing language, and to define such notions as appropriateness in language variation. All linguists care about standards. All linguists care about clarity and precision. What linguists object to is the attempt by individuals to impose artificial and unauthentic rules on everyone - the kind that were repeatedly asserted in the pages of the QES magazine, and of course immediately disputed by its membership, who could never agree on such matters as whether it was right or wrong to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with 'and', and suchlike.

At its best, the QES performed a useful service, drawing attention to genuine instances of careless usage, ambiguity, and so on in the public domain. At its worst it showed a horrific intolerance of language diversity which at times bordered on racism. I'm remembering now an article in the Winter 2007 issue of their magazine, Quest. This is what was written:

'The vast variety of earthly languages is indeed an almost unmitigated curse. The fewer languages the better, and the world will be a far better place when everyone speaks the same language - or perhaps I had better be frank and say when everyone speaks English (and it will come). I think Crystal once said languages are dying at the rate of one a fortnight. If so, that's the best news I've heard in a long time, and long may it continue!'

This is the kind of extremism that gave the QES a bad name, and made some of its members uncomfortable. It ties in, of course, with its regular condemnation of non-standard usage in regional dialects. The periodical's back cover maintained that the views expressed in its pages were not necessarily those of the editor or of the Society - but in that case, we could delete 'not necessarily', as in the previous issue of Quest the editor himself had expressed the same opinions in a book review (which is what motivated the letter-writer). Talking about the views I represent on linguistic diversity, he asks 'do we really need it?' [diversity], and answers his own question with 'quite the contrary', and he goes on to say: 'when a language dies, what really is lost? Surely something is in fact gained if the speaker decides to drop, say, Karas and adopts English instead?' The ignorance of the expressive richness of other languages was truly breathtaking, but that was only to be expected from someone who affirmed 'the superior quality of the content of the English language'.

I think people got fed up with seeing endless personal opinions about what was thought to be bad usage (only rarely would we be given examples of good usage). The same tired issues surfaced over and over - most of which had been part of the prescriptive tradition of complaint for well over a century. The membership too must have sensed that it had passed its sell-by date, for they evidently didn't even care enough to stand for committee office - which is why the current committee decided to call it a day.

I'm glad it's gone. It means those of us who really care about usage will be able to get on with our job without being continually distracted by issues that are beside the point, as far as standards are concerned. The notion of clarity, for example, does indeed need explication - but clarity has very little to do with the kinds of topic that the QES focused upon. Rather, it requires reference to features of syntax (such as the way sentence weight operates) which would never be mentioned in the pages of the QES magazine. And there are many aspects of the way English is evolving which do require a properly informed public discussion, such as the character of the emerging 'new Englishes' around the world, the status of English as a global lingua franca, and the forms and functions of English on the Internet. This is the world we're living in, but it is not one that the QES seemed to like very much. It was time for it to go.


Andrew said...

I pointed out some of the QES' own errors to their Twitter account, and they sent me this:

Marc Leavitt said...

Unfortunately, fascism is alive and well in the world;language is a primary target. The demise of the QES can only be applauded.

Anonymous said...

All I can do is applaud you for those observations, David. I'll also do a little jig on the grave of the QES.

graemehodgson said...

I'm shocked by how outdated and frankly 'toxic' the opinions you quote and refer to were! Although I never had any contact with the QES myself, I can only be glad that such a vehicle for bigotry has been sent where it belongs... to the scrap yard!
As a teenager, I was a finalist in English Speaking Union public speaking competitions, held at my local school in Truro, Cornwall, and now, living in Brazil since 1995, I am frequently invited to be a judge for regional and national finals of this competition, where it is a true privilege to see young Brazilians using English to express ideas, enthusiasm and good will to a wider, sometimes global audience. English should be a taught as a tool for global citizenship, whilst at the same time schools, universities and the media in general, make every attempt to value and preserve other languages and cultures which are disappearing only too fast.

Unknown said...

Your mention of "end weight" and the allusion to the whole idea of information structure interests me. One problem with the peeves expressed in QES and elsewhere is that the knowledge of grammar is typically very shallow. The language mavens focus on narrow points for gotcha' purposes. They do not seem to have read Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, and Svartik or any other competent grammar of the language. They don't consult Merriam Webster's or any other good usage guide. They certainly don't appreciate the variety and creativity that exist in the language.

Anonymous said...

graemehodgson said: >English should be a taught as a tool for global citizenship,>

But which type of English is appropriate for global citizenship? Are the goals of the English Speaking Union public speaking competitions moving towards BELF or ELF, or are their targets more in Standard native Englishes?

Spamlet47 said...

Much as I admire your astonishing gift, and ear, for language and dialect, David, I do find that you come across rather as 'anything goes': in the radio interviews I hear at least. This is, of course, no excuse for the failings of the QES described here. (Sorry if any grammatical errors have crept in: language speak is all gobbledegook to me, and the names of parts of sentences just go in one eye and out of the other!)

'Unknown' complains that we don't consult Webster's, and here I *would* put in a plea for *English* English. While the whole world can look at Webster's, but the OED is hidden behind a paywall, this is just handing the language, on a plate, to the Americans.

DC said...

Well, I dunno. I've looked at the kind of sentence I've used several times in print and on the radio - not least with John Humphrys, as the very first post on this blog pointed out - 'I don't believe that anything goes' - and can't for the life of me see how this can give the impression that it means 'Anything goes'.

This is what I said in that first post (talking about Humphrys' book on English usage):

'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.

Six years on, I find I'm still having to make the same point. It makes me feel very tired.

Spamlet said...

Sorry David. I wasn't aware of the history behind the term being applied to you in what you feel is a pejorative way. I've obviously heard the interviews out of context, and must read more of the books.

M-H said...

How horrible the views you've reported are. The loss of a language, with all the local understanding, knowledge and world view embedded in it, is a loss for all human culture, of course. As I'm over 60, I think I'm allowed to say that it's generally older people who have views like the QES seemed to have, and not very well-educated older people at that.

Anonymous said...

Spamlet47 said...

'Unknown' complains that we don't consult Webster's, and here I *would* put in a plea for *English* English. While the whole world can look at Webster's, but the OED is hidden behind a paywall, this is just handing the language, on a plate, to the Americans

If your local library subscribes to OED online and subject to your having a current membership card then access to the whole OED, as well as a range of other references, is free. Check with your library to see if they subscribe.

Andrew Steeds said...

I should visit your blog more often! And this time not just because it's, as ever, full of really interesting and wise observations.
This time, however, I'd just posted my own blog about the QES on my website ( and thought, rather too late, 'Wonder whether David C has had something to say about this'.
Should have checked a month earlier!
But so good to see what you've written here, and so good to them go!

DC said...

I've recently received the latest issue of their magazine Quest which reports a last-ditch attempt to save the Society. The crisis has evidently motivated a few people to serve as committee members, so there may be some life in the old dog yet. It'll be interesting to see how long this newfound enthusiasm lasts.

Martin said...

Dr Crystal is clearly not a permissive “anything goes” linguist. To get a reasonable handle on where David stands (as well as his dislike for the suggestion he believes that “anything goes”) I would suggest reading The Fight For English (especially the final chapter on the future of language usage) or the first chapter (titled “The Prescriptive Tradition”) of his Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. A (simplistic) summary of Dr C’s position (if my reading is accurate) is that context and comprehensibility are important, language needs to be taught well so that people know rules, but also how, where and why they apply. The other key point is that extreme rhetoric is unhelpful to the debate. To accept the caricature of his position is to accept a false dichotomy (between their particular grammar and “liberal” “anything goes” types) offered by some of those who are absolutely confident in their own rules.
From said final chapter of The Fight for English
“I am usually described by pedants as ‘one of those permissives’, an ‘anything goes’ man. One of the reasons for writing this book is to nail this myth once and for all. So Read My Lips. I have never, never said that ‘anything goes when it comes to usage. Nor has any other linguist. The principle of appropriateness goes clean against such a silly position ... At the heat of linguistics is the distinction between ‘grammatical’ and ‘ungrammatical’, between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’.”
Dr Crystal’s first post which he alludes to above should also be of interest on this topic.

Ken Westmoreland said...

Intolerance of linguistic diversity is not the monopoly of the reactionary right, it is much in evidence among the radical left. Henri Grégoire in France did not just want to annihilate (his word) regional languages in France but also dialects of French itself.

The outfit formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, and now known as Spiked Online, actually has links to the Queen's English Society - Ciaran Guilfoyle was editor of Quest while Brendan O'Neill wrote a piece about 'QES-bashing' here -

And another RCP member, Kenan Malik, has advocated language death for years.

English should be a taught as a tool for global citizenship

No it should not. Your statement would have delighted the very people whose imperialist views you (rightly) find so toxic. Globish should, as a fully-fledged language, as separate from English as Afrikaans is from Dutch.

Interesting that you live in Brazil, as I have always felt that Portuguese is an underrated and undervalued language and Brazil punches below its weight in promoting it worldwide. Indonesian is another such language.

Major regional languages, or 'Big Beasts', as Nicholas Ostler calls them, may not supplant English as a global lingua franca, but have an important role to play - which is why we should be teaching them in English-speaking countries.

DC said...

Just to clarify this last comment: the final three paragraphs are nothing to do with my post, but are aimed at the remarks by Graeme above. I have never lived in Brazil!

Ken Westmoreland said...

My apologies, David, for not making that clear, and for any confusion that may have otherwise arisen.

I have never lived in Brazil either, although can understand Brazilian as well as European Portuguese. The snobbery and rival claims to ownership over Portuguese are even more petty than those over English.