TT Epaper
The Telegraph
Graphiti
 
CIMA Gallary

RULES AND THE TRUTH

Who lays down the rules of English? Happily, nobody. Our language has no equivalent of the Académie Française to dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not. And a good thing too.

True, some four years ago a body called the Queen’s English Society tried to set up the “English Academy”. But the QES, whatever its zeal for the language, and the good sense of much of its advice, itself wrote, and punctuated, English so badly (and, bizarrely, with such evident contempt for foreigners trying to learn it), that no one took much notice. By coincidence or not, the society soon afterwards collapsed, and its self-appointed academy with it.

Yet to say that no one writes the rules is not to say there are no rules. They exist. Not that all experts agree about them, nor that they cannot be bent, some further than others. But their flexibility doesn’t go so far as to say, “if it can be understood, that’s good enough”. If, for instance, I declare that I’m not gonna say nothing to nobody, never, you’ll certainly understand me. But just as certainly I’ve broken the rules.

Nor is it enough to assert that some supposed rule or other was “invented” by ancient grammarians. I’ve probably used that phrase myself, but it goes too far. The grammarians of the 18th or 19th centuries didn’t simply invent.

They were trying — maybe too keenly, maybe with insufficient knowledge — to summarize what they considered good English usage. At times they were too vigorous, hardening up the common practice of good writers into a firm rule. But they didn’t just draw their rules or “rules” from their own heads.

Nor yet does the fact that some excellent writer may at times have driven coach and horses through some alleged rule prove the rule concerned to be bogus. Many 19th-century writers — Dickens, for instance — were writing at breakneck speed to complete some belated instalment for monthly publication. And even the greatest writer can get things wrong.

In Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd you can find Who’s land were you upon? For all Hardy’s justified fame, that who’s, in place of whose, is flatly wrong today; and the fact that it occurs also in Goldsmith more than a century earlier didn’t make it right even in Hardy’s day, let alone now. What came from some great writer’s past pen is a guide to today’s good usage, not a proof of it.

And to pen you can add keyboard. I’ve used keyboards for 60-odd years, yet I find I’m increasingly likely to write sight in place of site, or been for bean, or the Gandhi’s for the Gandhis. I suspect my fingers of having a memory of their own, which sometimes takes control. Maybe the fingers of today’s great writers are like mine.

The best guide to today’s correct usage is, unsurprisingly, what today’s good writers use. But beware: many good writers, more so than in past, I’d say, are doing their best to reflect today’s common-or-garden speech. And spoken English is not — and never has been — the same as written English. It’s often ungrammatical, with interjections thrown in that speech stresses can make clear as a keyboard can’t, and umpteen unfinished sentences. Listen to a verbatim recording even of many highly literate speakers and you might think they were barely literate at all. The speech of the street is a great deal further than that from the usage of correct written English.

In sum: yes, a few grammarians’ rules can be claptrap, and quite a lot can at times justifiably be bent. I’m prone to be rude about them, when they’re paraded as absolute truth. But most are, at least, sound guidance, and few are simply stupid.