Tossing English to the four winds

After 40 years of trying to protect the English language from poor spelling and aberrant grammar, the Queen’s English Society (QES) has decided to abolish itself, throwing in the towel in the face of increasingly lax standards of written and spoken English and a general sense that the rules don’t matter.

The Queen’s English Society (QES) was founded in 1972 by Joe Clifton, an Oxford graduate and schoolteacher. Society members wrote to newspapers and broadcasters, pointing out perceived linguistic errors and instances of ambiguous spoken English. The objectives of the Society, as expressed in its constitution were “to promote the maintenance, knowledge, understanding, development and appreciation of the English language as used both colloquially and in literature; to educate the public in its correct and elegant usage; and to discourage the intrusion of anything detrimental to clarity or euphony.”

In June 2012, taking advantage of digital technology, the QES announced that it had formed an Academy of English – a language reference website. Its founder was quoted as saying, “At the moment, anything goes. Let’s set down a clear standard of what is good, correct, proper English. Let’s have a body to sit in judgment.” Maybe “judgement” wasn’t the best choice of words, but some kind of linguistic arbitration seemed highly desirable faced with a situation heavily criticised by Ofsted (the official body for inspecting schools) in its 2012 report. Ofsted identified key weaknesses in the way English is being delivered at all ages, with schools often shunning creative and extended writing tasks and failing to teach the basics of spelling and grammar.

An opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph (8 June 2010) called the QES Academy of English “both welcome and long overdue. Authoritative bodies exist to maintain the purity of the French, Spanish and Italian languages, but English has been left to fend for itself at a time when it is under unprecedented attack.” In contrast, the Baltimore Sun (14 June 2010), opined, “the peevish combination of shibboleth and superstition about language, combined with a sad, sad little snobbery about their presumed mastery of the language, renders these people [the QES] impervious to reason.” It was Oscar Wilde who, in The Canterville Ghost (1887), wrote “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

It’s interesting that this controversy does not apply to music. No one argues that the rules and grammar of music (in the form of notation and harmony) can be ignored. Western musicians learn the traditional conventions and structures that underlie music and are then free to adapt, vary or discard them. Examples include James Joyce, who threw a spanner into the works of accepted writing practice in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and Edgard Varèse, who invented new notations and inspired a whole generation of modern composers from Pierre Boulez to Frank Zappa.

But music is not the lingua franca of society. People depend on language and its expression to negotiate their way through life. Its conventions and rules cannot simply be dismissed. As Brendan O’Neill points out in “The revolutionary potential of the Queen’s English” (7 June 2012):

“In order to engage with society, with its public life and politics, you need to fully understand its language. You need to know that the sentence you just read contained a split infinitive, and that some people frown upon those while others think they are okay. You need to know how words are spelt and how they should be arranged in order to achieve both clarity and clout; you need to know what punctuation is for; you need to know what is the best way to write things down in order for them to be understood by the maximum number (not amount) of people. When it comes to language, the rule is that the more you know the rules, the more you can play around with them and twist them for effect, if you like. But you need to know the rules. And it is this knowing of the rules that is called into question these days, by people who think we should stop telling 19-year-old muppets at university that they have spelt things wrong and who even think it’s problematic to say: ‘I am right and you are wrong.’”

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2 comments on “Tossing English to the four winds

  1. bailey says:

    The painting on your page is called “apple tree” by gustav klimt. Is it not?

    • Philip Lee says:

      It may be. I know it as the Tree of Life. Klimt’s landscapes deserve an exhibition of their own, perhaps alongside others of the same period that are less familiar such as those from Hungary. Thank you for commenting.

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