David Shariatmadari, a Guardian editor, outlines the history of grammar anguish with brio. His new book, Don’t Believe A Word (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019), devotes a chapter to this perpetual lament of slipping standards in English usage, from the 1300s onward.
Even Irish satirist Jonathan Swift added tuppence in his 1784 letter to the Earl of Oxford: “…most of the Books we see now a-days, are full of those Manglings and Abbreviations. Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg’d, Disturb’d, Rebuk’t, Fledg’d, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse?”
Yada, yada, ad infinitum. Eye-rolling and hand-wringing seem global pastimes in the realm of grammatical atrophy. Shariatmadari finds equivalent whines in French and German. Then there’s Fi’l Amr – a syndicate determined to safeguard Arabic – that lay the alphabet around Beirut streets like so many casualties, each letter encircled by yellow tape reading: “Don’t kill your language.”
Or should that be laid, not lay? One Spectrum reader, in a recent email to Wordplay, despaired over the lie-lay lapse, wondering whether “Paul Kelly and Ben Quilty are short-legged chooks?” Such an unlikely question was triggered by a Herald feature declaring the two artists “were laying low”.
But who’s kidding whom? We know what the author intended, just as Barry’s wretched plea deserved greater leniency – linguistically at least. Rudi Keller, a German scholar, cuts to the chase. “For over 2000 years, complaints about the decay of respective languages have been documented, but no one has yet been able to name an example of a ‘decayed language’.”
Already English has ample words to describe being impartial, from unbiased to neutral.
On the contrary, English has grown in expressive capacity. We see that in the complexity of go, once an all-purpose verb for move, but now a scad of nuances when paired with umpteen prepositions: go out, go off, go on, go for. Going through such scorching pre-summer days, who dares resent some added shading in our lives?
Or perhaps you’re disinterested in language evolution. Yes, I know – you got me banged to rights, guvn’r. Disinterested means impartial, to be persnickety, yet the same word has been drifting towards a synonym of incurious for the last 400 years – a population’s way of expressing what it means, rather than toeing the pedant’s line.
Shariatmadari treats the adjective as a test-case. What do we lose, he asks, if disinterested vanished tomorrow? Already English has ample words to describe being impartial, from unbiased to neutral. Just as uninterested, the word’s conflated guise, has a dozen cousins on hand. Resist all you like, but I’ll be hanged before I’ll fight the crowd’s right to express itself as it sees fit.