28 May 2021

.... and again ... and again ...

Here is something I read quite recently, sent out from the Head of House of an Oxford college .... indeed, what makes it even worse, my own college:

"[X] was married in the Chapel just before Christmas. I know everyone will join me in wishing he and Ann the very best.".

That the Head of an Oxford college should be unable to write simple, grammatical English, leaves me speechless. (Before you ask: the man is a historian.)

And, even more recently, I was informed that ... just for a week ... I could access the Catholic Herald  without a paywall. So I dipped in. 

I shan't dip into that wretched periodical again, not within this millennium, whether it's free or unfree. In it, I found Antonia Fraser writing:

"The cinema was another Oxford pleasure throughout the year -- slightly more complicated by my brother Thomas and I wanting to watch films which needed an adult to accompany a child.".

Fraser has written books; she came from a literate and literary family ... her father would have been ashamed of her ... and, indeed, she had a lengthy extra-marital affair with a notable playwright. His name was Pinter, and I bet he wouldn't have written English with such miserable illiteracy (but then, he had the advantage of being Jewish).

I suppose the once great but now failing Catholic Herald is so strapped for cash nowadays that they can't afford to employ subeditors.

Yes, I know that in 'language' matters, usage is overriding. I remember, at school, the French Master ending any argument by saying "Seventy million Frenchmen disagree". However much I may squirm and whinge, I can't get round this simple fact. It applies and always has applied to every known human language.

Mind you, I think this usage is very unfair to foreigners trying to learn a language which is already as difficult as English is. Hence, it is xenophobic or even racist. In my view, those ideologues who are trying to ram this irrational construction down our throats are pretty well guilty of Hate Speech (and should be locked up). As they win their philological victory, poor Johnny Foreigner will be faced by an ultrapedantic grammatical rule which will have to go something like this:

When a pronoun is linked by a conjunction with a noun (or another pronoun), that pronoun must always be placed in the nominative case, without any regard to the syntax of the sentence or clause. 

Or can you think of a snappier way of saying it? So the poor students will have to memorise such useless and pompous twaddle and try to remember to obey it. Latin and Greek grammar, as traditionally taught to tiny boys in English Prep Schools, tends to be thought of nowadays as having been obscurantist, but I don't think it knew any complexities as arcane and ridiculous, as purely useless, as contra-utilitarian, as this.

It's not new. Back in the Seventies, I heard a collegue ... a Wykehamist!! ... referring to "Paul and I's study". And I remember another colleague having a mighty argument with a girl student who, poor child, had been indoctrinated by her parents (I infer that they must have been of the Aspirant Peasant Classes like Trollope's Mrs Lookaloft) to believe that saying "I" when the grammar requires "me" was the very height of conversational gentility.

I always, if I spot it, delete from my blog all comments which include this disgusting usage.

After all, this is my blog.


Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Hurrah! Well spoken, Reverend Father.

Dave K said...

How right you are, Father!
I worked for the BBC when quality mattered; just listen to some of the output today, not to mention just about every interviewee starting each sentence with "So,...."
In the 1970s, the BBC had a splendid Presentation Editor for Radio 2 called Jimmy Kingsbury. He was a man with a rich, accent free voice which he used with authority. He once said to me "It's not up to people to guess what you're telling them, it's up to you to tell them precisely!" It's something I've never forgotten. Repeating this in the mid 2000s to some of my university media studies students elicited strange looks.
The correct use of English is no longer important either in broadcast or print.

Sue Sims said...

Lingustically, it's known as hypercorrection, and is, I'm afraid, entirely the fault of English teachers.* For years and years, poor put-upon pupils had to listen to those teachers drumming into them the rule that a subject pronoun had to be put in the nominative case: "My sister and I went shopping" rather than the colloquial "My sister and me...". These pupils (at least, the more intelligent among them) absorbed this very well; then, of course, they were so terrified by the possibility of Getting It Wrong and being taken for uneducated simpletons, that they extended the construct to sentences where the pronoun was actually an object. Thus one sees such notables as the head of your college and Lady Antonia getting it wrong - my hairdresser, who left school with no O-levels, doesn't have a problem with it. (One sees similar hypercorrection in the use of 'whom' when 'who' would actually be correct.)

*Of whom I was one till retirement - I know whereof I speak.

Richard said...

God gave us the rules of behaviour carved on tablets of stone, but the rules of grammar he left to us.
Paul and I's room is horrible, but it's not actually wrong. Like adding coca cola to fine champagne, it's not actually immoral, it's just a deplorable failure of taste - in my opinion.
Grammatical sticklers are boring. The only alternative to the law of usage is the law of whoever taught and frightened you when you were small.

PM said...

Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge ("another place" for the fastidious) appended to one of his works on the Tudor period an annotated bibliography which dismissed one of Lady Antonia Fraser's works as 'ungrammatical romanticism'.

PM said...

Elton also had the advantage of being Jewish. He was the son of the distinguished ancient historian Victor Ehrenberg.

william arthurs said...

if we accept that usage is overriding, and that case-endings have tended to fall by the wayside in languages (certainly their spoken forms) where there is informational redundancy (stemming from word order, or from the presence of prepositions): anyone who finds the distinction between 'I' and 'me' distasteful ought to wonder why it still exists.

The answer is surely that where 'me' is replaced by this bizarre-genteel use of 'I', there is, or has been, a risk of real ambiguity in certain constructions.

But if no-one is, any longer, capable of formulating a thought that needs to be expressed using such a construction, then that ambiguity can never arise.

There may still be a few of us left for now, but that is my prediction, anyway.

I remember visiting Vilnius in 2005 and having a lesson on the Lithuanian language's ten cases, from the waitress, based on the hotel's breakfast menu. I had to eat my pancake before it got cold so I never found out why it was so important that, for example, 'with', 'by', and 'from' each deserved their own case!

E sapelion said...

One shudders.

PDLeck said...

Rant as much as you want on this issue, Father, but you're wasting your time. I feel as strongly as you do but it is not good for our blood pressure. I have to tolerate the dictators, sorry I mean examination boards (or as they prefer assessment bodies), when I mark examination scripts and am obliged to accept the most dreadful English. I mark Biology and am even required to accept incorrectly spelt technical terminology. What is the point of such terms if they are not correctly used? I cannot understand how students are supposed to learn if I cannot correct their errors! (I'm now sloping off to lie down in a dark room until my blood pressure comes down.)

B flat said...

It seems to me that in the isolated snippet quoted, The cinema...throughout the year - sets context but has no role in the rest of this awkward sentence, in which the clause, my brother Thomas and I wanting is the subject, and films needing an adult to accompany a child is the object. They were not responsible for making the pleasure complicated. it just was.
Why am I mistaken in thinking that she and Thomas should be nominative? If they should be genitive because of the participle wanting, which is theirs, then Thomas is in the wrong case too. I thought she was naturally lapsing into the Queen's usage concerning her late consort, when speaking for them both as subjects in the sentence in spite of their exalted status.
I am probably gaga, having forgotten my little latin, but I will really be glad to learn where my mistake lies.

frjustin said...

Context may make a difference. For example, when Jesus walks on the water in Mark 6:50, the disciples were terrified, so Jesus says to them, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear"(RSV). The translators of the New Jerusalem Bible apparently thought it unlikely that Jesus would be so correct in that situation, so they translate, "Courage! It's me!" I cringe whenever I hear that read in church, but it's universal in the spoken language.

Orak said...

Starting a sentence with “so” is bad, but starting every sentence with “like” is excruciating

Simon Cotton said...

Has anyone else noticed another change in usage? Instead of saying 'the number of X/Y/Z...' the tendency is to say 'the amount of X/Y/Z...'.

cus said...

Dear Father,
(I was so deeply suprised by my not agreeing with you in 100% that I write this all of a sudden without reading the comments, so sorry if this has already been said.)

I/my etc. is nasty phenomenon, but linguists say this is how languages change. New generations grow up and a formner error becomes the norm.

Just think of good old Latin! When the limes could no longer withstand the push of the migrants (speaking all kinds of barbaric languages), this mixing led to the development of corrupted Latin forms - and, finally, to the evolution of new languages like French or Spanish.

PM said...

The contagion afflicts even those who think of themselves as conservatives. I recall a homilist sneering at the Jerusalem Bible for attributing a grammatical error to Our Lord in "who do you say I am?" But "who", not "whom", is right. "Do you say" is a parenthetical clause which has no bearing on the relationship (of apposition) between "who" and "am".

This is becoming a common error of overcorrection. "Whom" is, sadly, an endangered species, but we do it no service by misusing it.

Andrew T said...

Well, if you will read the . . .

Paul said...

I gave a high school student a pass, with distinction, despite several repeated “typos” like spelling Israel “Isreal” etc because I detected enthusiasm, the right sort of enthusiasm, and hints of original thinking.

E sapelion said...

English has no arbiter of correct usage. In French the "emphatic pronouns" moi, toi ... are recognised as correct usage. The Bible de Jerusalem translates it -
Mais lui aussitôt leur parla et leur dit : " Ayez confiance, c'est moi soyez sans crainte. " (Mk. 6:50 FBJ)

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear cus

If you look back at my original piece, you will see that I already made precisely the point you urge.

William said...

@B flat
The answer to your question is, if I may so say, quite simple. Suppose Lady Antonia’s brother had not displayed the same interest in the cinema. Would she then have written “slightly more complicated by I wanting to watch films …”? I hardly think so. The case error there would be obvious to any English speaker. So why would the case change just because Thomas wanted to come along too? The grammatical structure of the sentence doesn’t alter just because there are two persons involved rather than one.

Cus said...

Yes, but I hate changes... you can easily detect I am not a native speaker of English, so my love for your language and culture is different but deep. For me the greatest scandal is the un-gendered reference to he/she by "they". And this is a rule now!

Memoryman said...

For i knows how to milk a cow and I can reap and sow
I be fresh as the daisy that grows in the field
and they calls I buttercup Joe

John Nolan said...

'Each deserved their own case' is incorrect. It should read 'each deserved its own case.'

'The next couple to go through is ...' (Strictly Come Dancing). Should be 'are' - 'couple' is a plural noun, like 'people'.

When I taught history I used to cross swords with teachers of English who told pupils it was incorrect to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. I would refer them to Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Line 2.

The use of the third person plural pronoun with a singular antecedent noun is barbarous. When referring to (say) a politician, a pianist or a doctor, there is no need to say 'he or she' since everyone knows women are included in these roles. The masculine pronoun will suffice.

Terry said...

How interesting that this post about the use of language has generated more comments than almost any other in the recent past (the only exception being a post about vaccines)!

One might conclude that your readers, Father Hunwicke, are more interested in linguistic criticism than liturgical criticism.

Somebody once said that the proliferation of 'incorrect' use of language has one advantage. It provides an opportunity for those who feel psychologically threatened by any sort of cultural change to bolster their fragile self-esteem by pointing to the errors of those perceived as less educated.

Terry Loane

Banshee said...

Terry Loane -- Language is upstream and downstream of culture, and everyone has to use language as a tool everyday. It is intimate and inescapable. Our brains are designed to try to observe and understand grammar from our earliest moments outside the womb, and it's very likely that we learn the tones of voice of our native languages while we are still inside the womb.

So it's natural and normal for all people to worry about language.

Just this week, I had a customer leave in high dudgeon, because we asked for clarification of his order. (He used the term "kamikaze" for an Icee comprised of all three colors, which was a term I'd only heard applied to the reckless mixing of all alcoholic drinks available at a party.)

Now, usually people are amused and delighted to explain weird slang terms, but this guy wasn't. He felt that we were looking down on him. I am sorry that I didn't manage to act perky and jolly him out of it, but I was so tired that I couldn't manage perky.

(The usual terms around here for mixing all flavors of soft drink are "suicide," which is now deprecated and doesn't cross my lips at work; "garbage drink," which is obviously a problem to say to squeamish adults in a retail setting; "rainbow," which I try to avoid for obvious 2020 reasons; and "all-color," which is kinda boring but safe.)

Terry said...

Thank you, "Banshee", for responding to my comment. You are absolutely right that "it's natural and normal for all people to worry about language". I certainly do.

But the rules of grammar are surely rather like national borders. We need to have them and we will get into all sorts of difficulties if we try to ignore them. But also we need to acknowledge that the boundaries of what is grammatically acceptable and the boundaries of nation states are always provisional, always contested, always subject to change. (For example, the existing borders of the United Kingdom have only been in place for just over 100 years - to be exact, 100 years and five weeks.)

I do not choose to predict which of the following will happen first: Northern Ireland will cease to be regarded as part of the United Kingdom and will instead become part of a united Ireland; "criteria" will cease to be regarded as a plural noun and will instead become a singular noun. (I think I heard someone say "criterias" on the radio last week!)

Change is inevitable, as is that distress that change can often cause to people of my sort of age.

Terry Loane