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IT IS THE PRESENT THAT RULES

Of all zealots, the recent convert is the keenest. Witness one such, a self-styled pedant who writes on the English language for readers in its home country. In the past, I’ve made mock of his pedantries. But last autumn brought a startling change.

I hailed it, welcoming him “to the clan of those who, in his words, believe that ‘how native speakers use the language is the only evidence we have for what English is’’’. I wouldn’t myself put it quite so strongly, and I’d delete native: India’s English is a genuine form, however few Indians are born into it. But broadly, yes.

How broadly, though? By now, our ex-pedant is racing ahead of me in his mockery of text-book ‘rules’. He recently argued that, true, it is a mistake to use flaunt for flout, or disinterested for uninterested, but it doesn’t really matter, because the context will show what’s intended. I disagree.

Wider issue

He’s right that many words have multiple meanings. Indeed a few, known as antonyms, have meanings that contradict each other: quite, for example. And yes, we can usually spot which meaning is intended. Take my however few above: did I mean “but few” or “whatever small number of”? I’m sure you can tell.

And to tell is usually easier still if a word is being flatly misused. The man who boasts he “flaunts” the rules of English is manifestly flouting them, and flaunting only his own ignorance. Likewise when mitigate is misused for militate.

But things aren’t always so clear. Quite is one of the harder cases, I’m quite sure of that. Or am I only quite sure? Easy enough to tell, if I’m speaking; less easy in print. In some contexts it’s hard to know whether disinterested is being used rightly (“with nothing to gain”) or wrongly (“doesn’t care”). And, unlike our ex-pedant friend, I think ambiguity, or the risk of it, is to be avoided; except maybe in poetry.

There’s a far wider issue. If English has rights and wrongs, as I believe, who or what decides which is which? Certainly not long-dead grammarians, but not long-dead dramatists, essayists or Bible-translators either. My answer, like our friend’s, is usage. But not just any or anybody’s usage. If enough of us choose to say green for the colour of blood, OK, one day green will mean what red does now. But only one day; until then, green means “green”. In my eyes, it is — broadly — the broadly agreed current usage of people with a solid command of English that decides.

Utterly outdated

Here our ex-pedant’s new anti- pedantic zeal recently led him too far. A British teenager had upbraided a giant supermarket company for using the phrase most tastiest. The giant gave way. Wrongly, said our friend, pointing to several Shakespearean phrases, such as the most unkindest cut in Julius Caesar. True, he said, a double superlative like this “isn’t part of modern standard English”, but “that’s merely a convention of usage”.

“Merely”? Isn’t usage exactly what he proclaims as setting the standard? And he’s right. But usage when? Most unkindest is an utterly outdated form, and rare even 400 years ago. What good writers did in 1600 or 1800 is always of interest. But it’s no proof of what English is today. James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer, often wrote you was, as educated Scotsmen were apt to in 1750. Fair enough, then. Not now.

Unless we accept a new pedantry, that the past overrules the present. It doesn’t. It guides, it advises, but when the two are flatly opposed, it must be the present that rules.