Gervase Phinn: When a glorious language becomes a twisted tongue

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ENGLISH is the most widespread language in the world with a billion people speaking it. Five hundred million people use English as their mother tongue and it is the native language of 12 nations and the official or semi-official language of 33 countries.

Of the world’s 2,700 languages, English is arguably the richest in vocabulary and certainly ranks as one of the most demanding to master. The Oxford English dictionary records nearly a million words and adds 300 new ones every year. The average English-speaking person uses only about 2,000 words in his or her vocabulary. The more educated use twice that.

English is a rich and poetic language but is more complex, irregular and eccentric than most other written languages and is arguably the most difficult European language to read and write. This is what makes it so fascinating.

I consider myself to be very fortunate in that I had excellent English teachers. Ken Pike and Mary Wainwright taught me that good English was clear, simple, plain and unambiguous, easy to read and listen to and free of sloppy, overblown and cliché-ridden language.

They also taught me certain rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. I think of them and can visualise their blanched faces when I hear people say ‘it is quite unique’ or ‘nearly unprecedented’; ‘I was sat’ or ‘we was there’; ‘It could of been’ or ‘the Government were’.

My English teachers wanted their students to be creative with words and excited by what they could do with them and that is why they cared deeply about how language was used but did not get too upset when the odd rule was broken. Having said that, were they teaching today I guess they would cringe at some of the material sent to schools:

n ‘I must emphasise that the remedial teams are language teaching practitioners whose task is to work alongside the teachers in the classroom. They are not merely a pair of hands to listen to children read.’ (Circular to Schools).

n ‘It has come to my attention that there may be some slight confusion over what constitutes a living individual for the purpose of registration under the Act, insofar as systems are concerned. I wish therefore to reiterate that this category includes all living individuals, pupils included.’ (Advice on the Data Protection Act).

n ‘Reimbursement of examination fees will not be made to GCSE candidates except in extreme circumstances such as the death of the candidate.’ (Note on the Procedures for the Reimbursement of Fees).

n ‘This basic course in child abuse is intended for workers who have little experience in child abuse and wish to acquaint themselves with the procedures and practices.’ (In an in-service handbook for teachers).

n ‘Candidates will be considered for this post with a proven record of co-ordinating a major subject discipline in the school. We are aware of the inaccuracies of our appointment system so if you feel you cannot match the job specification, please do not apply as you might be appointed.’ (Advertisement for a deputy head teacher’s post in a Middle School).

I do not wish to sound holier-than-thou. I, like most people, am far from being a perfect user of this difficult language. After all, I was guilty when I was a school inspector of sending a letter to the headmaster of a grammar school which began ‘Dear Headamster’. I blamed the spell-checker. Fortunately the recipient had a sense of humour and replied ‘Dead Gerbil’.

One reader of the Yorkshire Post took exception to my misuse of the word ‘aggravate’ in an article I had written. He informed the newspaper in his letter that the correct word I should have used was ‘irritate’ since you can only ‘aggravate’ a disease, condition or situation and not a person.

The Collins dictionary states that ‘aggravate’ is often used informally to mean ‘to annoy, exasperate, especially a persistent goading’. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word ‘aggravate’, which dates back to the seventeenth century and comes from the Latin word aggravare – ‘to make heavy’, is in widespread use in modern English to mean ‘annoy’ but that it is still regarded as incorrect by some traditionalists.

I am grateful to the correspondent to have gone to the trouble of writing and for pointing out something of which I was not aware.

Of course the proof reader of my books does this – point out my blunders – and I am grateful to her. I sometimes unintentionally split an infinitive, misplace a participle, end a sentence with a preposition and slip up on a spelling. After all I’m not a Winston Churchill or a Professor David Crystal.

It was one particular howler of mine that made me think about writing the book Mangled English. I was warned by a friend than when visiting Barcelona with my wife we should be especially careful for there were pickpockets about. It would be a good idea, we were advised, to secrete money on our person in a body belt. In town I went into a shop which sold suitcases and said to the lugubrious-faced man behind the counter:

‘I’d like a body bag for my wife.’

‘Wouldn’t we all,’ he replied wryly.

When I related this episode to my wife she suggested I compile a light-hearted look at the mishandling of this rich and powerful language of ours, about the things we say and write which can cause unintentional humour, gaffes such as:

Malapropisms – “My granddaughter takes electrocution lessons”

Bookshop strange requests – “Have you James Joyce’s Useless?”

Unusual Book titles – Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in Hebden Bridge.

Proverbs – Never bolt the door with a boiled carrot.

Euphemisms – Naval officer excusing himself: “I’m going to shed a tear for Nelson.”

Courtroom Gaffes – “I represent the accusation that I am living of immortal earnings.”

Signs – Maternity unit. Please use the back entrance.

Epitaphs – He died in peace. His wife died first.

Robert McClosky, a State Department spokesman, once said: “I know you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure that you recognise that what you heard is necessarily what I meant.”

How true.

What we say and write can lead to a great deal of misunderstanding and unintentional mirth. “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” said Zeno 300 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

If we need to decide what is good English we can turn to Shakespeare but even that master wordsmith sometimes (as Mr Pike pointed out when we were studying The Merchant of Venice) came a cropper: ‘Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since, in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are clear’d between you and I.’

‘Between you and me,’ surely?

• Gervase Phinn is a former teacher and school inspector. He is the author of Mangled English, published by The Dalesman, price £9.99.