Only a poltroon despises pedantry, says David Mitchell.


The Observer,  Sunday 3 January 2010

Introducing new words is all very well, but sticklers like me prefer the traditional approach to language.” David Mitchell joins the endless queue of people complaining publicly that English is not like it was when they were young. You can read the full article  here:


 After eight paragraphs of pretty good discussion of some people’s attitudes to words (—teachers discouraging ‘nice’ or ‘good’ in favour of more interesting adjectives, Susie Dent’s cataloguing of the year’s crop of neologisms, silly advertising slogans that catch onto everyone’s lips—)  David Mitchell gets right to heart of his fundamental dislike of innovation in language:

“We sticklers say we fear confusion of meaning but it’s the feeling that we’ve learnt and obeyed a set of rules that doesn’t matter that really spooks us.”

By ‘sticklers’ he means folk who hate others getting away unpunished with American spellings, slang words and grammatical trespasses. Certainly it is galling if you have invested time and effort in learning the distinctions between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’,  or ‘number’ and ‘amount’, only to see other people ignore them. But needing to invest time in getting a grammatical form right can be a sign of its instability in the language. The vast majority of linguistic rules are learned perfectly by children with no  difficulty or conscious awareness of what they are doing. If a rule is proving a bit hard to get right, it could well be on its way to changing.

David Mitchell is right that there is not likely to be any confusion when someone says amount of times rather than number of times, or ‘less people’ rather than ‘fewer people’, or uses ‘hopefully’ to mean ‘I hope’ rather than ‘in a hopeful manner’…..So if clarity is not an issue, why not accept that only dead languages stand still, and gracefully bow to the inevitable fact that the way we speak is not going to be the way our grandchildren speak, just as we don’t speak like Tennyson or Jane Austen, and they didn’t speak like Oliver Cromwell.

To justify his plea that sticklers must fight change to preserve the language from dissolution,  Mitchell gets scary:

If the innovation continued unchecked, unmonitored by Susie Dent, then the language would fragment into thousands of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The stickler-advocated rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation slow the speed of change and allow the language to remain united.

It’s a common mistake that language doom-merchants make all the time, that left to their own devices languages inevitably dissolve into a messy free-for-all. A quiet moment’s reflection tells us this cannot be so. Languages are perfectly capable of self-regulation. For all of the 100,000 years and more that our language-using species has trodden the earth, languages have never needed guardians to keep them in proper shape.  I mean, really, think about it.  The language that Shakespeare learned when he arrived in the world had not been nurtured by generations of monitors who made sure that innovation was regulated, vocabulary patrolled, grammar enforced. But it was nevertheless a fine enough tool for him to write with. All the while people need to communicate with others in a given language there is no chance of it dissolving into mutually incomprehensible dialects. For this to happen, you need the prolonged geographic isolation that an ocean, river or mountain range brings. In the nineteenth century it was predicted that British and American dialects of English would diverge greatly and become mutually incomprehensible, but that was reckoning without transatlantic travel, phone calls, radio, film and television etc. Today, American  and British Standard Dialects remain very close, and in the written form they are practically identical. Susie Dent and her ilk have played no role in this.

It’s true that English is spoken all across the world, and has local dialects which are very different from anything we hear in the UK or the USA. But English for national and international (as opposed to local) purposes is kept from fragmenting because the conservative force of the need of its speakers to understand and be understood. It will be different after the world as we know it collapses into environmental or economic chaos. The break-up of Latin after the fall of Rome into French, Corsican, Portuguese, Romanian, etc. would be mirrored in the break-up of global English. At that point even sticklers would care less about the state of the language than about where their next meal is coming from. But the new dialects derived from English would have tons of grammar and would be able to express anything that standard English can express now. All human languages have that capacity.

So worry not, David. Take comfort in the knowledge that in English there are thousands upon thousands of rules which are not being routinely broken, but adhered to strictly even by the sloppiest of people. You and your fellow sticklers give far too much importance to the tiny handful of rules which are undergoing change. Someone like you probably went to his grave insisting upon ‘to-day’ rather than ‘today’ , ‘perambulator’ rather than ‘pram’,  and probably thought such slipshoddy usage presaged the end of the standard dialect. He was wrong, and so are you.


2 thoughts on “Only a poltroon despises pedantry, says David Mitchell.

  1. "We sticklers say we fear confusion of meaning but it’s the feeling that we’ve learnt and obeyed a set of rules that doesn’t matter that really spooks us"It’s a pity that an intelligent guy capable of that major insight can’t take the extra step of over-riding that feeling. It’s all about the cognitive dissonance involved at thought of giving up rules you learned with great effort, and were taught defined you as socially superior.

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