Predictably and depressingly, the BBC has again allowed someone with no qualifications in linguistics to hold forth on the subject. Why? WHY?*
This morning we had Simon Heffer, a journalist and editor at the Daily Telegraph, complaining that young people today don’t know their grammar and it’s time people like him got into the classroom to show them what’s what. You can read the report and listen to the interview here:
He was in Bury St. Edmunds asking a group of secondary school children the difference between I will and I shall. They warily admit they don’t know, except for one girl who says she does know the difference, but she doesn’t get to tell us what she thinks it is, and that’s a shame as I for one would like to have heard it. No, Mr Heffer jumps straight in. He claims that will expresses a resolution to do something, and shall expresses simple futurity. Thus if you say that you will do something you are really determined to do it, but if you say that you shall do something, it’s just a comment on a future action.
Of course, this is absolute nonsense, a classic case of a pedant trying to get us to change the way we speak to fit a smug notion he has of grammatical rectitude. Millions of English-speaking people express clear resolutions every day. Millions more express clear thoughts about the future. If we examine the language they choose to express themselves in, we will not find a distinction between shall and will. And even if we go back over hundreds of years to see if we can find a clear difference in the way English speakers used the words, we won’t find one. Because there never has been one.
An interesting and real distinction is the one between the already-decided future (I am going to do it) and spur-of-the-moment future (I’ll do it). But no child gets that wrong so Heffer presumably isn’t interested in it. And this is what I despise most about him and his ilk. The children he spoke to all answered his questions in clear and thoughtful English, correctly employing dozens of syntactic and morphological rules. They get no credit for having mastered this complex language system. They just get criticized because they do not know, and why should they, a grammatical distinction which has never held good in the entire history of the language. So they get to feel bad about their English. Or perhaps they didn’t feel bad. Their teacher Mr Barton sounded like a pretty sensible man and I imagine he told the kids to ignore the yellow-trousered stranger.
Another bugbear for Heffer is the way nouns become verbs. He complains about the noun target being used in recent years as a verb, as in to target. This characteristic of language, known in the trade as derivational morphology, is very widespread in English. Just sitting here at my desk I can see numerous examples. You can table a motion, you can wall someone up, you can carpet someone, floor someone, phone someone, fan someone, shelve something, staple something, file something, pen something, pencil something in, and chalk something up…. Why on earth can’t you target something?
As a rule, if a pedant like Mr Heffer gives you what seems to be a perfectly normal sentence and asks what is wrong with it, you can confidently answer, Nothing ! Here is Heffer’s crafty example:
The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary.
There is nothing wrong with that. Heffer tries to make out that ‘warn’ is a transitive verb and therefore requires a direct object:
The Prime Minister has warned us that spending cuts are necessary.
To which we can say, the verb to warn is now both transitive and intransitive and doesn’t need to have a direct object. How do I know this? Because this is the way it is used by masses of people, and there are many dozens of verbs in English which are both transitive and intransitive so there is nothing egregious about that.
Heffer says we are judged on our language, and this is true. What he does not seem to understand is that a favourable judgment does not depend on how closely you follow irrelevant prescriptions on grammar. Heffer thinks, for example, that because panini is a plural word in Italian, it is incorrect to ask for a cheese and tomato panini. He says you should be saying, a cheese and tomato panino. For the same reason, he probably thinks you should not be asking for two cappuccinos. But if you did walk into a deli in England and ordered a panino and two cappuccini, you would be judged, rightly, as completely ridiculous. These are now English words and they obey English morphological rules.
Just in case anyone gets the impression that I am suggesting we can ignore grammar and put words together any way we like, I will finish by labouring two points.
1. All humans use grammar in every utterance they make, and without any conscious attention. Only the severely brain damaged fail to use grammar.
2. Much of the most incomprehensible and boring writing in the history of humanity has been perfectly grammatical. Grammar in and of itself does not supply clarity of expression.
*Oh, now I see! It was a publicity stunt. Simon Heffer got this slot on the BBC to publicise his book Strictly English which comes out this week. There must be better things you can do with the money.