Crusader defends the crowning glories of the Queen's English
Anyhow, he prides himself on often being the lone voice of reason and upholder of standards in an environment where others were content to allow apostrophes to run amok – if they were present at all – and prepositions, articles, conjunctions and interjections to crash into each other or disappear. Amid the chaos someone had to raise the Queen's ensign, even when surrounded by those who'd rather offer a white flag.
Lamb is president of the Queen's English Society, a charity founded in 1972 to promote good English. Their surveys are taken extremely seriously and quoted by politicians and in the media. In a word, the point of the society is clarity – using language to convey your meaning as simply and directly as possible with all the marvellous tools at your disposal. But, during a career as a genetics lecturer at Imperial College, London – one of the country's top educational establishments – he didn't find a great deal of sympathy for his
view that students should be penalised for poor use of English in written work.
"I believe it's wrong of teachers and examiners not to knock marks off for poor English," says Lamb. "You find students from countries like Singapore speaking and writing several languages beautifully, but the standard I was seeing among English students was at best average. Standards declined a lot in the 1960s, when the educational establishment came up with the idea that young people should be marked only on giving the correct answer, but not on how well they had used the actual language. I gave a talk about how wrong I thought this was at a conference of the National Association for the Teaching of English and made myself extremely unpopular. They heckled me. But we need all teachers in all subjects correcting bad punctuation or grammar and misuse of words."
He found himself the only member of his department who was willing to try and stop the rot. "Some students were grateful when I corrected them, but others saw me as a crank. Good English is no less important just because you are writing about science.
"I came across howlers all the time, like the use of 'affect' instead of 'effect' and 'complimentary' when 'complementary' was meant or vice versa. This kind of thing changes the understanding of the science – for instance, affect means to have an influence on something, and effect means to bring to completion. Quite different.
"Colleagues generally wondered why I bothered, and the head of department didn't appreciate me talking openly about the problem. But how do you enthuse others to use English well if you don't draw attention to the problem by bringing it out into the open?"
A few of his biggest bugbears are use of "criteria" (plural) when talking about only one criterion, talk of "an algae" (plural, the singular being alga), and confusion of "there" and "their". He's only human, though, and admits to asking his wife to proof read his own writing. Having been asked many times if he could recommend a definitive guide to use of our glorious language and not satisfied that the right book existed, Lamb wrote it himself.
The Queen's English And How To Use It is sure to be a runaway success with those who already know their semi-colon from their elbow. Less sure is whether it will finds its way to those who need it most.
Among them appear to be young job-seekers. "Major employers from Marks and Spencer to British Telecom and the Confederation of British Industry say they have problems finding candidates for jobs whose use of English is good enough. People with good degrees are being turned down because of mistakes in CVs and letters. I'd like to help them to improve."
The Queen's English by Bernard C Lamb is published by Michael O'Mara, 12.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.
co.uk. P&P is 2.75.