Sunday 31 December 2006

On editing encyclopedias

Twice this week, at social gatherings, I have found myself having to explain the difference between an ‘author’ and an ‘editor’. The distinction evidently isn’t always appreciated, perhaps because editors do a lot of writing – as in newspaper editorials – and authors do a lot of editing. And on the front of a book, such words as ‘edited by’ can appear in very small type.

The question usually arises like this. I am at a house where the hosts have a copy of, say, The Penguin Encyclopedia (which I edit), and I am introduced to someone as the ‘author’. No, editor, I correct. But that has no effect. The next question is invariably ‘How do you begin writing an encyclopedia?’ I don’t write it, I say, I compile it. ‘Is there a difference?’

There’s never time to give the whole answer – hence the usefulness of a blog. The situation isn’t entirely clear-cut. I wrote, but I suppose also compiled, my first attempt at an encyclopedic work, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. That wasn’t like an ordinary book, where you start at the beginning and keep going ‘from left to right’ until you reach the end. It was like a huge jigsaw puzzle, with bits partially completed from all over the place and chunks of material moved about to make them fit better. (The English Language encyclopedia used a different method. I’ll maybe talk about that another day.) CEL was a purely authored book.

The general reference works, such as the family of books which began with The Cambridge Encyclopedia in 1990 and which now have a reincarnation in the Penguin series, are a totally different matter. I don’t write these. The writing is done by a team of people brought together for the purpose. These are mainly specialists – over 400 of them – from museums, university departments, public service organizations, and so on. Some are free-lance specialists. For current affairs (such as Nobel prize-winners and Oscars) I have an assistant editor in my office who writes first drafts.

How do I find specialists? I use my own sense of who’s who, supplemented by the intuitions of the commissioning editors in the publishing house. In firms such as Cambridge University Press, every area of knowledge is covered, and someone in the Press will know who are the leaders in a field and – more important – who are the authors capable of writing entries that are accessible to a general readership. That's the exciting bit - meeting these people. I got my space exploration entries from NASA. My biology entries came from the Natural History Museum in London.

Once potential contributors are identified, I get in touch and ask them whether they would be interested in writing, say, 300 entries of about 100 words each on the people, places, and subjects that comprise their field. With some subjects, such as zoology, it can be a thousand or more entries. Most people say yes. The fees are never brilliant, but specialists usually appreciate the importance of the task of presenting their field to a general public. Many organizations are also concerned about maintaining a strong public presence, and being involved in a big encyclopedia project is good PR.

You give your contributors a brief, and a deadline, and wait. The entries then come in on time, all beautifully written, requiring no editing.

I wish. For every one contributor who sends in material on time, five are late. Some are very late. You quickly learn to set contributor deadlines well ahead of the real deadline. In mercifully rare cases, the contributor doesn’t deliver at all, and you have to start all over again – or, if the subject is a fairly general one, you end up writing the stuff yourself. Here too, the distinction between editor and author is blurred.

But it’s mainly blurred because of all the revision that has to be done. I don’t write these entries, but I do rewrite them. And the process of rewriting takes time – months, in the days before email. The chemistry entries come in. They are excellent chemistry but I cannot understand them. I rewrite them to make them intelligible and send them back to the contributor. He says they now make good sense but they are bad chemistry. In simplifying the language I have distorted the content. He rewrites and resubmits. Now I can’t understand the entries again. I rewrite. He rewrites. Eventually we are both satisfied. Who wrote the entry that you eventually read in print, after such a procedure?

Once you have edited one entry, or set of entries, the next lot is there, waiting in the wings. And what is especially important is that you clear your mind of the first set before embarking on the second. No good having your head full of chemistry (more precisely, the language of chemistry) if you are about to edit a set of entries on, say, art history, where the style of exposition is very different. The biggest thing an encyclopedia editor has to do is learn how to forget. On Monday I would be able to talk to you intelligently about some detailed points in chemistry. On Tuesday I wouldn’t – though you can try me on art history! But not tomorrow.

So you can imagine now my reaction to the next comments which tend to come up at social gatherings. ‘Gosh, you must know a lot!’ or ‘I wish we had you on our pub quiz team’, or even, ‘Can I phone you as my friend?’ To which the answers are No, You Wouldn’t, and Definitely Not, respectively. It’s an interesting philosophical question: what do I know? If you were to ask me a factual question about an entry in the encyclopedia – when was the Taj Mahal built, shall we say? – my typical answer is ‘I know the answer to that question’. There is a pause. ‘Are you going to tell me?’ asks my interlocutor. ‘No’, I reply, ‘because I can’t remember it.’ I do know it – I rewrote the entry on the Taj Mahal, after all – but it’s one of the 5 million or so facts in the encyclopedia database which has just slipped my mind for the moment. So do I know it or not? I know where to look it up, that’s for sure.

(There is in any case no one answer to the question 'When was the Taj Mahal built?' It all depends on which part of the complex you are thinking of. That's why different sources give different dates. Many supposedly factual questions have alternative answers. Which are the longest rivers? It depends on which tributaries you take into account. Which are the tallest mountains? It depends on what you take to be the 'foot'. In which year was so-and-so born? It might depend on which calendar you use.)

I was once invited to be a member of the local Rotary Club’s quiz team, and was an absolute disaster (but not as bad as the local police superintendent, who couldn’t remember what the speed limit on a dual carriageway was). I asked the organizers whether I could bring a copy of my encyclopedia with me. Can’t understand why they refused.

Friday 29 December 2006

On not being a Beatle

The Christmas lull comes to an end today with someone asking me whether it is true that I was nearly a Beatle. That's going a bit far, but, as I've said before, there's a grain of truth in every legend.

I moved to Liverpool from Wales in 1951 and did my secondary schooling at St Mary's College in Crosby. I played clarinet in the school orchestra, but after Bill Haley and the Comets arrived on the scene I invested in a second-hand alto sax. Sometime in the mid-50s a group of us got together to play - trad jazz first, and then rock. The critical factor was that someone had to have a drum kit, and that someone was Dave Lovelady, so we rehearsed a lot at his place. As Beatles-historians very well know, there were groups forming all over the city at the time, but the sax helped to make ours distinctive. I think we were the first Liverpool group to use one in the line-up. We called ourselves the Zodiacs - though I suppose I should now say the 'original' Zodiacs, because the name was used by at least two later groups. We played our first gig at a church hall in Maghull, and then did the rounds of the various venues where kids gathered for dancing, such as St Luke's Hall and some of the city centre clubs. It was a lively time. The Cavern opened in January 1957. There were a lot of other unknown groups playing sets at these clubs. One was called The Quarry Men.

We played somewhere every week or so until 1959, when two of us found ourselves having to spend a bit of time rehearsing for A-levels. Whether the group was to continue would depend on the results. If we passed, two of us would go on to university, and the group would fold. If we failed, we would certainly become the greatest group in the history of pop music. We passed. I went off to London and started to read English. Another group, I believe, became the greatest.

I'm not sure what happened to all the members of the Zodiacs who stayed in Liverpool. I know that Dave Lovelady ended up as drummer with the Fourmost. I imagine that my entire student grant over three years was less than what someone like him would have earned from one Hamburg gig. I took my alto sax to London, got into modern jazz a bit at UCL, then traded it in for a baritone, until I realized that you needed more puff to manage that brute than I had available. In the end, needing money to eat, I sold my sax to a music shop in the Charing Cross Road. Cue violins.

Friday 22 December 2006

On complaining about the tide coming in

A journalist from the Observer, writing a ’fun piece’ for the Christmas edition, phones today to ask my views about the way some English words have become ‘loaded’. She had apparently read a piece in the current issue of the journal of the Queen’s English Society in which someone is complaining about the way certain words have changed their strength of meaning – like massive being reduced in power to mean ‘huge’ (as in ‘a massive heart attack’) or incredible used so as to mean ‘very fine’ (as in ‘an incredible restaurant’).

The journalist got the impression from the writer of the article that these changes in meaning are recent and novel. That didn't feel right at all, and a quick check in the OED confirmed the point. The broadening of meaning of incredible, for instance, is something that started, according to the examples recorded in that dictionary, as early as 1482. The figurative use of massive dates back to 1581. And it is the same with most examples of this kind. The writer doesn’t like arguably either (e.g. ‘Hardy is arguably the finest author to have written in English’). That usage has been around for at least a hundred years: the OED has examples from 1890.

The writer is against people loading words ‘with powers beyond their meaning in the dictionary’. If that was a valid principle – you must only use words with the meaning recorded in the dictionary – English vocabulary would hardly have developed at all, and we would have cut ourselves off from the kind of expressive richness we see in, say, Shakespeare, who was one of the best meaning-extenders the world has ever seen. It is also a misconception of how dictionaries come to be written: lexicographers record meanings as they change, and if there is a widely used meaning currently missing from a dictionary’s pages then it is a weakness of the dictionary rather than of the language.

But the writer was wrong, in any case. Factually wrong. The senses of massive, incredible, and so on are in the dictionary, and have been for some time. But ignorance of the facts of English usage has never stopped people complaining about it. Or, of course, perpetrating themselves the very crimes they complain about. The writer comments, 'The unloading of meaning from words is generally deplored as regrettable'. Now there's a word, generally, which does exactly what the writer is condemning in others. The claim is not something he knows about, for no survey of opinions about the use of these words has ever taken place. It is something he is wishing were the case. He is stating it as if it were a fact, when it is actually only a private opinion. He has, in short, 'unloaded' the meaning of generally to suit his argument.

Words change their meaning. To adapt a phrase rapidly becoming a catch-phrase at the moment (courtesy of the Bishop of Southwark): that’s what they do. They are there to help us talk about our world, and as our world changes, or our ways of looking at the world change, so do the words. It is important to be aware that the changes are taking place, of course, so that we are alert to possible ambiguities and misinformation. We need to know that generally is one of those words which writers often use in a misleading way. That is one of the driving forces behind lexicology, and why it is so important: it helps us manage vocabulary change. But to complain about words changing their meaning is as pointless as complaining about the movement of the tides.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

On 'the' in maybe Shakespeare

A correspondent has asked whether I have any views about whether Shakespeare wrote the Denbigh poems - or Danielle poems, as they're sometimes called. The little word 'the' turns out to be rather important.

These are two poems found in a collection of verses in Welsh, English and Latin mainly praising Sir John Salusbury and his family; they're in the library of Christ Church College, Oxford (Christ Church Mss 183 and 184). Poems XXI and XXII in Ms 184 are written in the same hand, which is different from any other hand in the collection. At the end of each poem is a signature in a different hand: finis quoth Danielle - 'finish said Danielle' - hence the name 'Danielle poems'. There are seventeen six-line verses in the two poems, in the manner of Venus and Adonis. Internal references to various personalities suggest that the poems were written between late 1593 and early 1594.

You can catch the flavour of the language from these extracts - the opening and closing stanzas of the first poem:

Sweet mvses come & lend your helpinge handes
to Rule my penne which quakinge standes to write
ffeare bides me stay but hope doth egge me on
to putt in practize what's my hartes delight
ffayne would I write so 'twere without offence
I'le venter once my mvse goe packe thee hence
... ...
And I'le intreat dianas trayne to stand
to lend ye help with all their siluer stringes
The nimphes shall dance with Salusbury hand in hand
treadinge the measures on the pleasant plaines
And thus in myddest of all his mirth & glee
I'le take my leaue of courteus Salusbury

John Salusbury inherited estates at Lleweni, near Denbigh, in North Wales, and married Ursula Stanley (a daughter of Lord Derby). He developed an interest in poetry while at Oxford and at Lleweni built up a literary circle. Nobody knows where Shakespeare was, in the early 1590s, but several people have argued that he visited Lleweni, and that these poems were written as a kind of 'thank-you for having me'. And one of them, John Idris Jones, having spotted several parallels between lines in the poem and lines in works known to be by Shakespeare, asked me whether I thought there was a strong linguistic case for or against authorship.

A full 'forensic' linguistic analysis - orthography, grammar, vocabulary, stanza structure, and so on - would be a huge job, and probably pointless, as without corresponding studies of other likely contenders for authorship it wouldn't be possible to draw any firm conclusions. Still, I thought a lexical analysis, which can be done quite quickly, might be illuminating. So I took the 274 content words in the poems (i.e. excluding grammatical words like 'of') and used the advanced search facility of the online edition of Shakespeare's Words ( to see whether they were all within Shakespeare's range in the works attributed to him before 1595 - and 266 of them were (97 per cent). So that's reassuring for the pro-Shakespeareans - though not a conclusive argument, of course, as the words might turn up in other authors of the time as well.

The best evidence in forensic stylistics always comes from identifying linguistic habits which the author would not be conscious of - not words like 'delight' and 'mirth', which we might deliberately choose, but those grammatical constructions which we never think twice about (unless we're linguists). For instance, some people say and write ‘while I was walking to town’ and others say ‘whilst I was walking to town’. Personally, I never say or write ‘whilst’. It's not a usage that appeals to me. So if a text appeared with that usage in it, it could not possibly be by me, regardless of what else was in it.

Is there anything in the Danielle poems like that? I believe there is. In Shakespeare’s time, both ‘in midst of’ and ‘in the midst’ of were used. Spenser, for instance, has several examples of in midst – indeed, he is the first recorded user of it, in 1590. But Shakespeare always uses ‘in the midst (of)’ - 13 times, in fact (if we include King Edward III. I'll list them at the end of this post. Even in those places where he needed to drop a syllable, he went for i’th’ midst of and not in midst of. But the Danielle poet (see the final stanza above) uses in myddest of.

There are many examples of Shakespeare using a construction sometimes with and sometimes without a definite or indefinite article (eg at least vs at the least). But he never drops the the in in the midst. Well, with only 13 instances to go on, this is hardly conclusive. But it does raise a very large question-mark in my mind. Little words sometimes carry a great weight of stylistic responsibility.

The Danielle poems deserve further linguistic study, so I'll write up my analysis in full, when I get a moment, include a complete text, and put it on my website so that others can draw their own conclusions. In the meantime, the arguments will surely rumble on.

Shakespeare's uses of in the midst (of):

Antony and Cleopatra
III.x.11 [SCARUS] Whom leprosy o'ertake! – i'th'midst o'th'fight,
IV.xiv.31 [MARDIAN] Then in the midst a tearing groan did break
The Comedy of Errors
I.i.104 [EGEON] Our helpful ship was splitted in the midst;
I.i.97 [MENENIUS] I'th'midst o'th'body, idle and unactive,
III.ii.28.1 [FIRST SENATOR] Cleave in the midst and perish.
King Edward III
III.ii.66 [THIRD FRENCHMAN] And in the midst our nation's glittering host;
V.i.139 [SALISBURY] And in the midst, like to a slender point
Henry VI Part 3
V.iii.3 [EDWARD] But, in the midst of this bright-shining day,
The Rape of Lucrece
344 But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,
III.iv.10 [MACBETH] Both sides are even. Here I'll sit i'the midst.
A Midsummeer Night's Dream
V.i.96 [THESEUS] Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Richard III
V.iii.296 [KING RICHARD] Our archers shall be placed in the midst;
The Taming of the Shrew
V.i.133 [KATHERINA] What, in the midst of the street?

Monday 18 December 2006

On not being an Italian dj

Someone writes to say they typed 'david crystal blog' into Google and found themselves on the coolest electro- techno- progressive dj site ever, and they never guessed in a million years I looked like that or did that sort of thing in my spare time. Yeah, right!

There is no copyright on names, as thousands of John Smiths know very well. You might think an unusual name would be different, but in fact David Crystal isn't that unusual. The surname has two possible etymologies. One links it to other names such as Christopher, and has Celtic connections - there are McCrystals around, for instance. The other is a derivation from a Central European name, related to words which mean 'jeweller'. It's the latter that's relevant in my case, as my great-grandfather left Lithuania for Britain in the late 19th century.

It can get confusing when you go searching. There's another David Crystal who writes poetry, for instance. A couple of years ago I visited a British Council library in India where the librarian had done an amazingly thorough job of putting a collection of my books on display. It included a couple of (the other) David Crystal's. I pointed out that they weren't by me, and she seemed quite disappointed, as she'd enjoyed reading them, as they gave her an insight into the seedier side of London life, and she was very impressed that I knew about such things.

She had checked on Amazon, she said, and had got the clear impression that they were by me. How? The problem lies in the way Amazon handles its titles. If you look up a book on Amazon it often says, towards the bottom of a record, 'People who bought books by X also bought books by Y'? When they are my books, the cross-references are always to other linguists, as you'd expect. Unfortunately, the software used by Amazon doesn't distinguish between people with the same name, so the alternative DC also has cross-references to linguists. No wonder the librarian was misled.

I've never understood why Amazon doesn't provide a more sophisticated semantic contextualization of authors, to distinguish those with the same name. The point would apply just as much to books with the same title - or of course to artists, musicians, and so on. It wouldn't be difficult - though it would take a bit of time - using an encyclopedic taxonomy and appropriate software. John Ford (dramatist) would then be clearly different from John Ford (film director), and so on. I did write and suggest it once, but never got a reply.

There's also a psychologist in the US called David Crystal. That isn't me either. Nor do I offer eye care or design pendants. I just do linguistics.

Anyway, back to Italy. It turns out that Rimini-based Davide Taranto has adopted 'David Crystal' as his dj name. Why, he doesn't say. I wonder what reaction I'll get when I next go to Italy?

Tuesday 12 December 2006

On TV language blockbusters - not

A correspondent, after watching recent television blockbuster series on Romans, kings and queens, babies, and assorted plants and animals, asks me if there has ever been a comparable series on language, and if not, why not? The writer also asks me why I haven't done one. Now thereby hangs a tale.

As far as I know, there has never been such a series - on language (and linguistics) in general, that is - in any country. There have of course been series on individual languages, such as The Story of English and The Story of Welsh, or aspects of languages, such as the one I did last year on accents and dialects, The Way That They Say It (BBC Wales). There have also been individual documentaries on particular aspects of language, such as on children's language, or on the world's endangered languages - like Janus Billeskov Jensen's fine 'In Language we Live' (Final Cut Productions, Denmark). But I don't know of any series which takes 'language' as its subject-matter and explores it thoroughly - a kind of TV equivalent of my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, if you like.

Why not me? Well, it hasn't been for want of trying. My epitaph might well read: 'He tried to get television companies to do a language series, but failed - repeatedly.'

I have a file full of proposals to different companies. They don't originate with me. What happens is this. Every now and then the phone rings, and it is a TV researcher or production company. They have read some of my stuff and they have thought of a brilliantly original idea - a television series on language. Would I be interested in acting as a sounding board, consultant, writer, presenter...? The first time this happened, according to my file, was during the 1970s, and it's happened about twenty times since. I used to respond enthusiastically, and still try to, but if I added up all the wasted hours spent putting proposals together only to have them eventually turned down, it would be equivalent to a book or two! Here are a couple of instances.

During the 70s I was invited to a meeting of all the heads of department at the BBC in their Ealing office. Sheila Innes was in charge and I presented the subject to a large group of staff. There was interest. But then they fell to a-talking about which department it should come under. Was it current affairs? History, perhaps? Everyone had a stake in the subject (that's language for you) but no-one felt able to 'own' the whole subject. Nothing came of it.

During the 80s I remember being approached by an independent producer. I worked up a preliminary outline, and the producer tweaked it into TV shape. Eight one-hour programmes, I think it was. We were invited to a meeting at the Groucho Club to talk to the head BBC2 honcho about it. I recall the meeting well, because there was a power-cut and we ate largely in the dark. A bad omen. He thought we were working along the right lines, but felt that what viewers wanted was a wide-ranging socially grounded series, full of the world's people and places. Bring in more social diversity, more linguistic controversy, he said, and work it up into a proper proposal. It took us a couple of weeks, but we did it and sent it in. Then we learned that a new head honcho had just taken over - someone whose background was in archaeology. The reaction we got to our proposal was 'Interesting, but there's no history in it. Viewers are interested in the origins and development of language. Where's that?' Well, it's not there because your predecessor thought... We left the meeting feeling very dispirited. He suggested we rework our proposal, but not very enthusiastically, and we just didn't feel up to it, then other things got in the way...

There was one nice outcome. The producer had worked with Sylvester McCoy, and they eventually came up to Holyhead and put on an evening for an audience of entranced Welsh Whovians.

Over the past twenty years I think I must have explored with producers every conceivable way of mounting a TV series on language. The pitches have been to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Discovery... None have gone ahead. I began to think it must be me. But there were two things which told me that the malaise was more deep-rooted. First, I did have some success when the idea was to do something on a specific and 'one-off' issue, and I've been involved in the planning of a dozen or so programmes over the years, all of which have gone to air. And secondly, I once had the chance to ask a group of programme-makers to their faces why language as a subject put them off. It was very illuminating.

It was at Broadcasting House in London, round about 1980. I was asked to talk about language to a managerial seminar series, and I started by asking them why there had been no blockbuster... etc. The answers went roughly along these lines. People remembered language work from their school days. It was dull, boring, dry as dust. Parsing. Split infinitives. Tenses. Being told off for mispronouncing something. Iambic pentameters. ... I looked around the room. From their age, these were almost all people who had been through the prescriptive mill. They were probably the last generation of people to do so. They had never been enthused about language.

I had a similar experience when I met a buyer for W H Smith and asked him why one hardly ever sees a book on language in Smith's bookshops. Boring subject, he said. Not the sort of thing people would want to buy when they're getting on a train. He too, on being pressed, turned out to be someone who had once been parsed to death.

That prescriptive era has a lot to answer for. It suppressed grass-roots language enthusiasm for generations. And it presented a view of language as abstract and abstruse. 'How can you possibly show something as invisible as language on screen?' a TV executive once asked me. 'You show people', is the simple answer. And if there are no people around, you show what they left behind them - their inscriptions and documents, especially. In this respect, language is no different from a programme on archaeology or anthropology.

But curiosity about language can never be entirely stifled. It only takes a few minutes talk about accents and dialects, children's language, language death, the nature of stammering, place-names, animal 'language', or other such topics, and people begin to perk up. And you'd think that a series which looked at all of them would have something going for it. Planet Earth? Planet Language.

It hasn't happened yet, but I hope it will one day, in some country (and not necessarily in English). I keep plugging away, whenever I get the chance. Last November I was at White City for the party to mark the end of the very successful Voices week, in which the BBC had celebrated the country's accents and dialects. As the linguistic consultant for the venture, I was asked to give a brief retrospective, but I turned it into a prospective, hoping (a) that the BBC would do it again, after a few years, so that there would be a regular auditory 'snapshot' of British speech recorded, and (b) that the BBC would do even more language programmes, and maybe even a blockbuster.....? Well, I thought, it's not every day you have the director-general of the BBC within earshot. Nothing to lose. But I'm not holding my breath.

Monday 11 December 2006

On languages uniting people

An MA student of international journalism, writing an article on the English-Speaking Union, asks me why language is such an important force in uniting people of different backgrounds or beliefs.

Well, I suppose it's because language is the only way in which we can really explore what those beliefs are. We can, of course, experience a country without saying a word in the local language, and have a great time, but if we want to begin to interpret what we have seen, and understand for ourselves the true uniqueness of the people and how they think, then we need to know (at least a little of) the language - or languages - in which their vision of the world is expressed. If we have no lingua franca in common, we have to rely on an interpreter or translator to make communication possible - something which works at a functional level well enough, but which distances us from the emotional realities that motivate the people. Only direct, face-to-face, one-to-one communication can make us feel we have really made contact with the way someone thinks.

This was brought home to me a few years ago. In 1999 I visited Mtemwa, a leprosy settlement in ZImbabwe, to find out more about the setting in which the missionary poet John Bradburne wrote, and because it was a hasty arrangement I was unable to get any Shona under my belt in advance. I couldn't even express a simple hello in the language or ask 'how are you?'. Gestures helped - especially the beautiful convention of gently clapping the hands as a sign of greeting, which I picked up straight away - but one can stay smiling at someone else only for so long. The people spoke no English at all, nor any other language I knew. I encountered them, therefore, but I did not feel I had really met them. Even a short and stilted conversation of my own would have helped me to feel more at one. My hosts spoke Shona, of course, so that helped by way of explanation of who I was and what I was doing there. But during the whole visit I felt on the edge of their world, when I wanted to understand more about it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to mind. In his 1833 Journal he said: 'No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, - so helpless and so ridiculous.' That's so true. Languages give us access to understanding, and the more languages we acquire the better.

A lingua franca adds a fresh dimension. And if the common language is one which is embedded in the culture of both communities of speakers, then it will have adapted to express their individuality, and it is then possible for the speakers on one side to make considerable progress in understanding the mindset of those on the other. Any lingua franca has this role, but a global one most of all. This is the position that English has found itself in. As a global lingua franca, it provides a medium of expression to anyone who cares to learn it, and at an official or semi-official level that means some 70 or so territories around the world. However, it is important to note what happens when a language travels in this way.

As soon as a territory adopts it, they adapt it - and the chief evidence is in the thousands of words that are used in each territory that are not known outside of it. Many of them have been collected into dictionaries now, such as the Dictionary of South African English, with its thousands of words borrowed into English from Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and the other local languages there. Note that, because these words have emerged to express local interests and preoccupations (eg local politics, religion, fauna and flora), they will be opaque to first-time visitors to the territory. A lingua franca does not guarantee immediate cultural understanding. But at least the process is hugely facilitated by having the explanation of local words and expressions couched in a discourse that is for the most part intelligible to the outsider.

Notice that the process of understanding is different from the question of 'uniting'. The word 'understanding' is ambiguous: it can mean both 'comprehension' and 'sympathetic or empathetic comprehension'. Just because I understand your point of view does not mean to say I will like it. Some people hold the naive belief that a global language will result in a world of peace. However, just because people speak the same language does not stop them hating each other, as the history of civil wars has shown. Indeed, there is something to be learned from Iatiku, the mother goddess of the Acoma in New Mexico, who is said to have caused people to speak different languages so that it would make it difficult for them to quarrel! Certainly, there is a lot of evidence to support the view that the more a country espouses a sound multilingual policy the less likely it is to have ethnic conflict.

People learn a lingua franca not for idealistic reasons but for practical ones - to have access to sources of (economic, political, technological, military, religious, cultural...) knowledge and power. The danger, of course, is that, once that access has been achieved, a community will be sucked into the milieu of the dominant culture and lose its identity. This is something that the dominant culture needs to be aware of and do something about. Very important, therefore, in the strategy of organizations such as the English-Speaking Union, is the need to respect and support the other languages that are spoken within the English-speaking nations.

Even if one of the primary aims of the organization is improvement in English-using skills - as in the case of the ESU, with its excellent international debating competitions - there is clear evidence that these skills are facilitated by fostering the use of other languages. I recently read a report from CILT (the National Centre for Languages) which illustrated this kind of thing. For instance, there was a study of Portuguese children in London secondary schools which showed that those encouraged to continue studying their native language were five times as likely to achieve five top-graded A-to-C grades at GCSE. Or another, of 11-year-olds in Hackney: those who spoke more than one language at home were outperforming pupils who spoke only English, even in reading, in their national curriculum tests. I'm not at all surprised by this. We have just one brain, and the language centres in the brain have to handle every tongue we encounter. We don't know exactly how multilingualism is neurally represented, but it's only common-sense to think that fostering one element in our 'language organ' will have knock-on effects for others.

I remember once spending a few days in France, and was quite pleased with the way I managed to get my French up to a reasonable speed - enough to be able to give a lecture in it. By contrast, I hadn't used my much more limited Spanish for years. I would certainly not have been able to carry on even a basic conversation in Spanish at the beginning of my French visit, without a great deal of brushing up. But, towards the end of that visit, I happened to meet up with a group of Spanish speakers in a bar and found that my Spanish had somehow regenerated itself to a level where I was doing quite well. It was as if the continued exercise on the French-speaking part of my brain had opened up a channel to the Spanish-speaking part. Or maybe it was the g&t. Anyway, a few weeks later and I was back to square 1 in Spanish, with no amount of g&t helping. So there must be something in it.

There is more to the notion of 'uniting' than language, but without language I doubt whether there would ever be much unity.

Saturday 9 December 2006

On writing how many books?

This morning brings a familiar query. Someone is writing a piece in which they want to mention how many books I've written. They have looked on Google and seen references to 'over 40', 'over 80', 'over 100'... Can they have a definitive answer, they ask, from the horse's mouth?

Well, not from this horse. There's a problem, you see. It all depends on what you mean by 'book' and by 'written'. This isn't just a linguistic quibble. It's a real issue, and I never know what to say when someone asks me this question.

If you want to research this, you'll find the information at, where there's a complete listing of all the books that have my name on the title page. As of today, there are 160 items on that list, excluding translations. But what does that figure mean?

To begin with, you have to make a distinction between books which are written and books which are edited. This is especially important for me, because since 1986 my life has been schizophrenic. On the one hand I keep trying to be a linguist. On the other hand I find myself doing a huge amount of general reference work, as an encyclopedia editor.

The distinction between writing and editing isn't clear-cut, actually, because when you're editing something you do an awful lot of rewriting of other people's stuff. Sometimes, when the entries are not of a specialized nature, I end up writing them myself. But for the most part I find myself handling material which other people have written. In the case of the unabridged encyclopedia, I use material from over 350 consultants around the world, as well as drafts from my small in-house team of assistant editors. That work informs all the editions of the Cambridge 'family' of general encyclopedias (not the two language ones, mind, which are authored works) and of the Penguin 'family' of encyclopedias and reference books. There are 33 of them altogether.

Then on the language side, how do you quantify co-authored books or books where I've edited a collection of essays? I am not by nature a collaborator, but over the years I've worked with colleagues on a number of such projects. Indeed my very first book was a collaboration, with Randolph Quirk. (He wrote well over half of it, actually, and showed me how to write my bit.) Or, to take another example, the Skylarks reading development programme - which wasn't my idea: it was Jeff Bevington's. I was brought in to give the scheme some linguistic structure, and ended up doing so much that I became a co-author. And above all, there was the Databank and Datasearch series of information books for children with reading difficulties. There are over 30 of them, and all are co-authored with English teacher John Foster. I didn't write any of these - I re-wrote the material John provided, using developmental linguistic criteria, so that the information was presented in a way which maximised ease of reading. In all there are 46 items in my list which involve other people in one way or another.

And what does one do with 'second editions'? (or third, fourth, etc.) Several of my books have gone through more than one edition. I hate doing new editions of an old book, actually. I find it a pain having to think myself back into the mindset of how I was - usually several years before. Still, some types of book do need regular updating, and so it has to be done. And with some books it can take almost as much time to do the new edition as it did to write the first one. Each new edition of the Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, for instance, takes ages. And for the second edition of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, the publisher allowed me to use full colour, instead of the second-colour restriction I had to work with in the first edition - which meant re-researching all the illustrations, and that took the best part of a year. So I guess new editions of this kind should count as separate items, in any inventory. On the other hand, when What is Linguistics? was in print, each new edition involved minimal updating (mainly fresh information about the universities which were offering linguistics courses at the time), so they should hardly count as separate books.

If you ignore all the problem-cases in the language domain, you will find a core of 40 items with me as sole author. That's where the figure of 'over 40' must come from. Adding the main academic collaborations, such as Investigating English Style, The Grammatical Analysis of Language Disability, and Shakespeare's Words, would take this to over 50. Including the educational collaborations, for schools or EFL, would add another 40. That's where the figure of 'over 80' must come from. And if you add the rest... well, take your pick.

As a linguist, I try to write a book a year on a fresh topic. Sometimes I don't manage it; sometimes I manage more. The demand for new editions on the general reference side often gets in the way. I read every word of every reference publication that goes out under my name, and with the larger books this can take a lot of time. Also, as I said, new editions of the language books suck up time too. So, I see that 2003 was a poor year, with no fresh book; but you can see why when you look at 2004, which is when a lot of the writing being done over the previous two years actually appeared.

The publication dates sometimes mean very little, in fact. Publishers will often delay or hasten a book's appearance depending on marketing considerations (back to school, Xmas...). On more than one occasion I've had a book held over from one year to the next to obtain (what the publisher hopes will be) a better presence. That can lead to the unfortunate clash of having two books appear in the same month. This happened to me in January this year, when How Language Works (originally scheduled for publication in March, but brought forward by Penguin) appeared within a couple of weeks of Words, Words, Words (originally aimed for pre-Xmas, but kept back by OUP to coincide with the launch of a TV series). It's not good when this happens. The two books are usually reviewed together, so that neither gets full attention. And although bookstores will try to persuade you to buy both at once, with a discount, I doubt it often happens.

An interesting variant of this is when a book gets turned down. I don't usually write a book without a contract in place. As a free-lance academic these days, it wouldn't be sensible to spend time writing something which might never see the light of day. (An author always has to keep an eye on the year-after-next's income.) But occasionally it happens, usually because I'm carried away with the mood of a moment. I get enthused about a topic, and when that happens I can't not write about it. Often I drop everything else and just write and write until I've got the topic out of my system. Then I wonder what to do with what I've written, and offer it to the publishers I know. You might think the new work would always be welcomed with open arms? Not a bit. My bottom shelves are filled with the corpses of rejected typescripts.

But never, never throw anything away. For what is dead meat to one publisher in one year might be highly attractive to a different publisher (or even the same one!) in another year. And that's a further reason why some years in my book-list appear to be more productive than others.

For instance, A Glossary of Textspeak and Netspeak appeared in 2004. That was actually written in 2001, at the dawn of the texting era. I was at a lunch and sitting next to the chairman of Bloomsbury publishing. We were talking about the Internet, as my book on that topic was just out. I was going on about the new texting linguistic developments that were emerging (abbreviations, emoticons, and so on), and how there was as yet very little information available about them. 'What about a book?', he said. 'Good idea', I said, and promptly went away and wrote it. A few weeks later I sent it in, but got no response. Too busy with Harry Potter, I supposed. After a few months it emerged that there wasn't any interest in it after all. So I asked my commisisoning editor at Penguins whether they would be interested. Nope. So it joined the other things mouldering on the bottom shelf and I forgot about it - until a year later, when I was approached by an editor at Edinburgh Univesity Press. They were thinking of a new introductory series and were hoping I would write a short introduction to linguistics. Having already done this three times, I said no. Then I thought: hang on, I wonder whether they'd be interested in a short introduction to internet jargon... And they were. I blew the dust off the typescript, found the original in my computer archive, gave it a thorough updating, and sent it off. Bingo. It appeared in 2004, and helped convey the impression that I'd been specially busy that year.

Friday 8 December 2006

On doing linguistic research

A sixth-form student writes to say that she has been asked to research a certain topic by her teacher, but isn't sure how to set about it. She asks how I do mine, though she says there's sure to be 'a world of difference' between what I do and what she has in mind. And no chance of doing anything original anyway, she says, gloomily.

Well, no world of difference, actually - and every chance. All research comes from the same origins - a curiosity, interest, desire to find out... If you're given a topic that you haven't any interest in, then that is not a good sign. The trick is to find an enthusing topic, and then five minutes discussion about how to find out about it will lead to all kinds of ideas. With language, there are millions of fascinating topics calling out to be investigated, and most of them have never been researched by anyone before. And when you encounter one, if you're a real researcher, you just can't ignore it. I'll give you an example in a minute.

Just think for a second of your own individual situation, wherever you live. Language is all around you. There is stuff out there to do with the way local people talk, the way regional identity turns up in the local newspaper, the slang used in your own school, the way your group texts each other, or uses instant messaging... Nobody else in the world is quite like you, or your group, and there will always be something interesting to discover about how you've personally adapted your language (or languages) to express yourselves. It will be different from the way other groups use language. People younger and older than you are will very likely use different slang expressions, for instance, as will people from different ethnic backgrounds, or males vs females. There's a huge amount of data just waiting to be explored.

If a friend of mine has a baby, I usually congratulate them on the birth of fresh data.

The new technologies offer some of the most fruitful areas for research - and some of the easiest, because the language is written down. What's happening - linguistically, I mean - on YouTube? I have no idea. Not really my scene. But it's bound to be a bit different from anything that's happened before. Instant messaging, texting, chatrooms, and all the other domains of computer-mediated life have received hardly any linguistic study. Just collecting a pile of data from yourself and your friends is a research task in itself - probably easy for you, but difficult for someone like me.

You have to forget the notion that research means huge projects, taking years to complete. There are plenty of those around, sure, but they are far outnumbered by the tiny research projects which add that little bit of extra knowledge to the pile. This is where I always start. I don't wake up in the morning and wonder, 'What shall I research today?' I know that, during the day, a question is bound to come up which will demand research.

Like yesterday, when a Radio 5 reporter rang up wanting to know what I thought about the nicknames cricketers use for each other these days. Excuse me? Haven't cricketers always used nicknames? Dicky Bird came to mind. (I know he was an umpire, but still...) Yes, but he thought these were different. Warnie, Freddie, Goughy, Hoggy... Was there a trend to use the -ie ending more nowadays? I hadn't thought about it. I played for time, and told him it was technically called a diminutive, expressing endearment. He was impressed by that, and wrote it down. I went on to say that I didn't think it was especially modern, though it certainly has replaced earlier endings, such as -ers (Fredders, Johnners) which were around in the 1920s. Well we talked about it inconclusively for a bit, but after he rang off I couldn't leave it alone. When did that ending first start getting used in nicknames? I looked in my Oxford English Dictionary CD under -ie. Just one reference, from 1887, and no mention of sport. Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang claims usage from the 17th century, but with no examples. It certainly isn't in Shakespeare. Is it in Dickens? The questions started to mount up. I called a halt after half-an-hour.

Every day brings such a question. Many of the sidebars in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language originated in just such an enquiry. Sometimes the question comes from outside. Sometimes you notice something yourself. Like the time I wondered what the 'S' stood for in President Harry S Truman. I couldn't find the answer in any encyclopedia: they just had 'Harry S'. It took the best part of two days to find the answer, and in CEEL the result is written up in 15 lines on page 148. Just 15 lines after two days' work. Was it worth it? Oh yes. You're worth it - I always think of language when I hear the l'Oreal catch-phrase.

[Incidentally, the 'S' stood for - nothing. Truman's grandparents were Solomon Young and Shippe Truman. His parents added an S to keep them both happy but didn't say which name it referred to, so the letter was never expanded.]

I do have a couple of larger, long-term, ongoing research projects which are, as it were, my default position - the ones I go back to when nothing else gets in the way. The trouble is that other things always do get in the way - which is why they are long-term and ongoing. One is a project designing a 'sense engine' to facilitate online search (some background can be found at The other is the editing of a huge corpus of poetry from the lay missionary poet John Bradburne - the most prolific poet the English language has ever seen (you can see where it's up to at They are unfinished, and probably unfinishable. But that's par for the course. Most research papers end by saying: 'Our research has raised several questions which need further research'. That's the joy of it. You find out a bit, get to the top of one hill, and see higher hills before you. The subject is always bigger than you are. And the chief personality trait you need as a researcher, IMHO, is humility.

Thursday 7 December 2006

On minding 'Never Mind the Fullstops'

Someone writes to me as follows: 'Did I see your name come up at the end of 'Never Mind the Fullstops'? What were you doing getting involved in such a dismal display of pedantry?'

Well, I suppose the short answer is: to try and make it less dismal - but I failed. This is what happened. Earlier this year the producers wrote and asked me if I would like to be a panellist on this new 'game show' about English usage for BBC 4. That thought appalled me, but I took the opportunity to write and say I hoped they would use the show as a chance to be a bit positive about language, celebrating its richness and diversity, and not just be another programme where people go on moaning about the bits of usage they don't like. Great idea, they wrote back. Would you like to be a consultant to help us get the balance right?

That seemed worth doing. And so I turned up at the studio in Victoria in March, where they were recording all ten programmes in three days - a hectic schedule. My role was to comment on the scripts and be on hand to answer any linguistic questions which might come up in the course of the recording. My spirits fell when I saw the scripts. Although some of the tasks facing the panellists were lively and innovative (such as the one where they hear some people talking in non-standard English and have to work out which part of the country they come from) and some potentially very funny (such as the one where they have to think up a mnemonic to remember how to spell a difficult word), the general tone of the programmes was negative. Most of them started with a variant of the theme 'We all know the English language is in a bad state...'. There were lots of tasks of the type 'Correct the errors...' - where 'error' was a prescriptive chestnut or a piece of non-standard English or a feature of language change. The message was very much that only standard English was worth anything - a message which wasn't denied even when there was the occasional bow in the direction of regional speech, where the attitude tended to be one of 'don't they speak funny down there?' rather than of genuine interest and respect for regional diversity (a marked contrast with the splendid Voices project: Julian Fellowes, the MC, had no shortage of opinions about what was right or wrong, and I could see that the programmes were going to deteriorate into an argument between him and the panellists (who, being 'personalities', would also have strong opinions) over points of usage. Which is what happened.

Anyway, I did my best, working through the scripts and suggesting new ways of introducing the issues and games, trying to bring in a celebratory tone to balance the 'doom and gloom' scenario, and also trying to point out that most of the 'Which is correct?' questions didn't actually have a clear-cut answer, because standard English usage was divided. And, to be fair, they took the thrust of what I was saying on board and made a few changes, so that the end product was much less negative in tone than it was at the outset. But I was on a hiding to nothing, really. Even if a positive note was there in the scripted introductions, when the programme got going and people started to talk spontaneously, Julian Fellowes' personal pedantries - good-humoured, but reflecting the complaints tradition - coloured the conversation, and hardly any of the panellists (over 30 of them) took him to task. There were a few honourable exceptions, such as the brilliant Roger McGough, who would restore any linguist's faith in human nature, but only a few. And the problem was that some of the best bits of television were precisely those where Fellowes sounded off about how one bit of usage was 'awful' and the panellists reacted. So in the editing process, the more balanced observations tended to be edited out. (They recorded over an hour's worth of material for each programme, and cut it down to just under 30 minutes.)

I sat for three days in that studio, wishing I was somewhere else (but actually managing to write a bit of my next book in the frequent lulls in the action - of which there are many, in television). Every now and then someone on the set would raise a technical question about language, such as where a particular word came from, or whether a particular usage was current, and the producer would turn to me and I would give the answer (if I knew it - but I usually did, as most of the topics were pretty basic). This information would then be fed into Julian's ear-piece and he would come out with it, thereby giving the world the impression that he was actually quite well informed about language matters. (There's a nice irony here. I was recently on an afternoon show on Radio 5 Live, and in the trail for the programme that morning the presenter evidently announced my participation as follows: 'He knows more about the English language than Melvyn Bragg but not as much as Julian Fellowes.' Heh, heh.)

So, yes, I was technically the 'language consultant' for this show, and that is why my name turned up in the credits. The problem with being a consultant, though, is that no-one is actually obligated to act on your advice - and in TV they usually don't. I watched the first couple of shows on air, and was sad to see that most of the tweaked bits I'd worked for had been edited out. I didn't watch the others. Maybe they were better - though I think not, judging by the comments about the show on the website ( Somebody there says that he assumed that the forms accepted as correct in one of the tasks had been 'approved' by me. I wish!

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?

Why a blog?

Yesterday I received an email from someone asking about a point of English usage - let's call it X. As I started to reply I realized that this wasn't the first time I'd been asked about X. And looking in my email archive I saw that I'd talked about X on at least three occasions before. This is getting silly, I thought. My views about X hadn't changed in the interim. Might as well put the point into the public arena, so that anyone else interested in X can find it. A blog is the ideal solution. From now on I propose to reply to anyone who gets in touch with me on linguisticky matters, raising a point of general interest, using this blog. I won't identify them individually, unless they choose to do so via a comment. It won't be a very regular blog - certainly not one of the 'three times a day after meals' type - as I'm out and about quite a lot. But I hope what turns up on it will be of interest.