Simon Heffer and a cartload of rubbish


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.




21 thoughts on “Simon Heffer and a cartload of rubbish

  1. <i>’There must be better things you can do with the money.'</i>I’m not sure I can think of anything worse. The sorriest part is the uncritical publicity the BBC has given to this ill-informed, anti-social peeving.

  2. @Stan John Humphrys was struggling to contain his pleasure when he introduced the item about Heffer on Radio 4. He obviously loves him. Thank God there was no webcam.

  3. Hi Pauline! I knew you were going to say something about this crazy man…!By the way, on Languagelog you can find some more posts regarding this issue: here’s another link in which Mr.Heffer talks about the uselessness of split infinitives and the incorrectness of some English expressions: yourself!

  4. Dan: I imagine he does – love them, that is – and I just read and enjoyed your post about the interview. Language, and perhaps English in particular, will always invite Heffer’s brand of proscriptive pseudo-expertise. One wonders what he’s trying to compensate for.

  5. So many people who talk and write about language and claim to ‘love it’ seem to fundamentally misunderstand what it actually is: a huge, living, breathing, uncontrollable thing that CHANGES.

  6. The interviewer asked him if he would ask for a "panino", and he said he would, she should have then asked if he would ask for 2 "cappuccini", or maybe if someone cooks him some pasta he says "these spaghetti are really good"I really hope that when he goes on holiday to Italy he tells the locals off if they say things like "tre film" when we all know that the plural of "film" is "films" in English so it should be in Italian too. Then they can also have a laugh at the pompous fool.I saw that book in the window of Waterstones, I felt like crying.I’m sure I heard Humphrys in the background saying "Heffer for education secretary!" – another ignorant idiot who for some reason thinks he knows better then everyone else.

  7. The traditional rule of usage guides dates from the 17th century and says that to denote future time shall is used in the first person ( I shall leave. We shall go ) and will in all other persons ( You will be there, won’t you? He will drive us to the airport. They will not be at the meeting ). The rule continues that to express determination, will is used in the first person ( We will win the battle ) and shall in the other two persons ( You shall not bully us. They shall not pass ). Whether this rule was ever widely observed is doubtful. Today, will is used overwhelmingly in all three persons and in all types of speech and writing both for the simple future and to express determination. Shall has some use in all persons, chiefly in formal writing or speaking, to express determination: I shall return. We shall overcome. Shall also occurs in the language of laws and directives: All visitors shall observe posted regulations. Most educated native users of American English do not follow the textbook rule in making a choice between shall and will.

  8. As a speaker of British English (from the Midlands), I use ‘shall’ quite often in informal speech. Almost exclusively in the first person questions ‘shall I…?’ and ‘shall we…..?’

  9. Heffer’s mate at the Telegraph, Charles Moore, has written a piece attacking the attackers (if you see what I mean) and arguing that descriptivists are essentially anti-education, anything-goes wreckers, often from privileged backgrounds themselves but determined to trash the life chances of the working class by promoting confusion and inarticulacy. I paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it.It’s ostensibly a review of Henry Hitchings’ Language Wars book – which looks quite good – but Moore obviously had a few other things to get off his chest too.

  10. This is one of the few contexts in which ‘shall’ still occurs in everyday <br/>speech. In some dialects, e.g. the North-east of England, it isn’t even <br/>categorical in this context, so you hear e.g. ‘Will I put the kettle on?’ There <br/>were more nuanced differences between ‘shall’ and ‘will’ at least in literary <br/>usage, in Shakespeare’s time. See Coriolanus III. i. 85-112 where Coriolanus <br/>take exception to a tribune saying of him ‘It is a mind that shall remain a <br/>poison where it is’. Coriolanus starts a lengthy rant ‘Hear you this Triton of <br/>the Minnows? Mark you his absolute ‘shall’? The word ‘shall’ is repeated <br/>several times each one indicating the offense taken by C at being told what to <br/>do by a pleb. So it’s worth knowing the ‘rule’ if you are studying Shakespeare, <br/>but important to recognise it no longer applies. <br/> <br/>Joan Beal

  11. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=unicode" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.6001.18999"></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText22764> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText28867> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 face="Times New Roman">Thanks, Dan,&nbsp;for the handy tip. I have now read Charles Moore’s unenlightened and more-than-slightly&nbsp;snobbish&nbsp;offering. (Sigh)</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>An educated, literate &nbsp;man like him should be completely ashamed of making such a ridiculous straw man argument. It’s bogus and dishonest to depict any professional linguist as somehow wishing to keep "poor ignorant street people" (sic)&nbsp;in the semi-darkness of functional illiteracy. The condescension in that characterisation is really distasteful, as is the suggestion that "poor ignorant street people" have nothing more than gibberish with which to express themselves. </DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>It seems to be no use pointing out to language bigots like Charles Moore that British people need to master the standard dialect not because their own non-standard dialect is wretched and inadequate, but because it lacks prestige.</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>Perhaps I’ll post this comment on the DT page, among all the other bigots queueing up to spew their&nbsp; hatred of split infinitive and glottal stops.</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV></FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr id=idSignature81916><BR> <HR tabIndex=-1> <FONT size=2 face=Tahoma><B>From:</B> Posterous on behalf of Posterous<BR><B>Sent:</B> Thu 03/02/2011 10:18<BR><B>To:</B> Pauline Foster<BR><B>Subject:</B> [badlinguistics] Comment on "Simon Heffer and a cartload of rubbish"<BR></FONT><BR></DIV> <DIV> <DIV style="LINE-HEIGHT: 18px; WIDTH: 600px; FONT-FAMILY: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: 12px" class=PosterousEmail></DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  12. It’s certainly worth contributing to the discussion, even if it is like p*ssing in the wind! The level of discussion on most of the newspaper forums (or fora as Moore would no doubt prefer) on language issues is pretty grim. Hitchings wrote an article for the Evening Standard (here:— on changing London English this week and it attracted quite the most vile response I’ve seen a while:"you can hear this Jafaican crap on buses, in benefit centres and McDonalds across London – anywhere but where money is earned. As if these kids didn’t have little enough chance in life as it is, speaking a patois derived from some of the most pointless countries in the world is hardly going to help".Makes the Telegraph mob appear mild by comparison!

  13. Call me a semi-dissenter. I’ll agree with all the other posters that we now use the verb warn intransitively, that most English speakers don’t single out the first person when it comes to using shall and will, etc. Yes, there is such a thing as being pedantic. Nevertheless, Simon Heffer’s contention that young people today don’t know their grammar is true. As a long-time teacher, I can tell you that many students have a terrible time writing coherent sentences, and one reason for that is the failure of schools to teach them how language works, and to hold them accountable for that knowledge. I live in Texas, where students supposedly have to pass a writing test in order to graduate from high school. What the state education officials don’t acknowledge is that almost any slop that a student writes, no matter how full of misspellings and grammatical mistakes, no matter how incoherent, is considered acceptable. Given that reality, I think that anyone who calls for the schools to offer more instruction in language is doing the right thing.

  14. But it’s just completely the wrong type of grammar, Steven. I share your frustration over some students’ grammar skills, but more prescriptive guff isn’t the way forward. Of course, students need to be able to understand how clauses work, what sentences are, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that that’s often best achieved by exploring non-standard varieties, text messaging styles, slang and new words, as well as the standard form used in essays, interviews and most public discourse.Heffer is a hopeless relic and he won’t improve anyone’s grammar with his hectoring.

  15. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=unicode" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.6001.19019"></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText40016> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=3 face="Times New Roman">Learning to speak grammatically comes naturally to a child and is accomplished&nbsp; without the need for explicit teaching or error correction. (In fact, it is accomplished in spite of explicit teaching and error correction.) Learning to read and write is something else. For children to master these skills, they definitely do need a teacher. </FONT><FONT size=3>The problem is, if they get a teacher like Simon Heffer they will be told all manner of untruths, and be made to feel insecure about their spoken language.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=3></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=3>So I agree with Steven, that children’s grammar can fail them when they come to express themselves on paper, especially if they are attempting&nbsp;something very far from their usual speech, like a formal written style with embedded clauses and the like.&nbsp;Spelling is something any educated person just has to master, and&nbsp; teachers who&nbsp; in their zeal to encourage self-expression do not point out mistakes in syntax and orthography are doing their students a huge disservice.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=3></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=3>But I agree with Dan C also, that teachers should not sneer at regional dialects or informal spoken&nbsp; and written registers. After all, these also have grammar, and loads of it. I don’t see why a classroom exploration of grammar cannot include examples from these.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=3></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4><FONT size=3>When all is said and done, the important thing is that children should leave school knowing how to speak and write formally and informally in the standard&nbsp;dialect, while not being afraid to speak formally and informally in their own dialect. That, plus knowing the pointlessness of snobbish, pedantic and unfounded&nbsp;prescriptions laid down by Simon Heffer and his sorry ilk</FONT>.</FONT></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT size=4></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV></FONT></DIV></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr id=idSignature84007> <DIV><STRONG><B><FONT color=#008040 size=1 face=Verdana><SPAN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; COLOR: #008040; FONT-SIZE: 7.5pt"></SPAN></FONT></B></STRONG><FONT size=2 face=Arial><SPAN style="FONT-FAMILY: Arial; FONT-SIZE: 10pt"></SPAN></FONT></DIV> <DIV class=MsoNormal><FONT size=2 face=Tahoma><BR></FONT><BR>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV>&nbsp;</DIV></BODY></HTML>

  16. Does anyone know of anything from a linguist that makes parody of prescriptivism? I think that would have real good potential for some linguistics humour!

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