Friday, 8 February 2013

Putting the cat among the Speckled Jims

I post this blog entry with some trepidation. You see it’s going to seem blasphemous to some people. In the stoning sense of the word, if not quite to that extreme. Really, it is! In today’s fashionably secular world, there’s a curious urge not to actually reject irrational worship, but just to idolise something or someone else instead of a god. I beg you, dear reader, as a favour not only to me but to yourself, that if you find yourself offended not by what I say below but by the fact that I dareth to speaketh it againsteth one of the modern messiahs, you take a moment to examine your reaction. Now, let’s get on with the post...

On balance, I’m inclined to agree with the popular opinion that Stephen Fry is a “National Treasure”.

  • As a comic actor he’s up there with the best. His General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett single-handedly(1) propped up the final series of Blackadder when its lead character was reduced to repeating the “somethingest something since some thing did some thing in some place” gag ad nauseumAnd I have to admit to a soft spot for his Jeeves, regardless of the contempt in which his performance seems to be held by some Wodehouse purists.(2)
  • As the presenter of BBC2’s highly entertaining quiz show QI, he’s charismatic, authoritative, and endearingly self-effacing.(3)  
  • As an author, he’s well loved and successful. (Even respected: His Ode Less Travelled is frequently cited by the more poetic of my creative writing colleagues.)

In short, Stephen Fry is a natural and lovable entertainer. I just wish he’d leave it there. Instead, by dint of presenting himself as an unremitting genius, he gets away with talking a lot of shit which gets taken as gospel by many. It’s not unlike two of my four least-favourite phenomena, both of which Mr Fry happens to be guilty of encouraging: Apple Worship, and Aggressive Atheism.(4) By way of illustrating this, I want to tell you a story. Now, are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin...

Once upon a time I was following a thread in an online forum. The thread was in a group named “Global Literature” or something like that, and was all about falling standards of written English. I’m often quite noisy about that subject, but as all of the participants’ views pretty much lined up with my own, I just watched from the sidelines. Until Stephen Fry was mentioned. (For the life of me I can’t remember why his name came up, but it doesn’t really matter.) I chipped in, saying that I loved the man as an entertainer but didn’t think his attitude to English was helpful or even very well thought out. My comments drew one or two surprised-sounding replies.

Let’s just step away from the story for a moment, and hazard a guess at what the people on that forum thought of Stephen Fry until that day. Fry’s a posh-sounding chap. He tends to dress smartly and does his utmost to be seen wielding the latest and most expensive gadgets. And even those unaware that he cut his comedy teeth with Cambridge Footlights could guess he was an Oxbridge man. It doesn't require a great stretch of the imagination to suppose that the people in that forum assumed Fry knows good grammar when he sees it and that he gives a fig about it too.

Predictably, the gist of the forum replies was “What on earth do you mean? Stephen’s a frightfully well-spoken chap, and well-educated with it. He’s obviously going to be as keen on good grammar as we are!” When you read the Fry quotations below you’ll quickly realise this preconception is very wide of the mark, but I’m not holding those people up to ridicule for being wrong. I don’t think their assumptions were unreasonable in themselves, though they were undoubtedly built on stereotype. I hold them up, in passing, for ridicule because of the immediate and mindless U-turns they all made on the actual subject of grammar, once I’d shown them Mr Fry’s stated opinions. Their conviction that I must have misrepresented Fry's opinions changed immediately to the conviction that "Well, grammar's not really all that, is it..." If that's not blind faith I'd like to know what is. But anyway, let’s get down to business and examine some of those opinions. (The greater part of Fry's piece is reproduced below. It's broken up so that my comments aren't too far from the bits they refer to, so I've italicised the quotations to make it easy for you to read them all at once.)

  • For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.

With his “cause of upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language” Fry sows a seed he hopes will grow into the idea that caring about language and enjoying it are mutually exclusive positions. Until he presents some evidence for this, I – as someone who does both, and pretty intensely at that – will dismiss the suggestion. I don’t know what universe Fry is living in if he believes “anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed”. Originality, delight, and freshness seem pretty universal in their appeal to me – one only has to surf Facebook for a few minutes to see that the perceived villains are the “Grammar Nazis”. Fry’s whole flimsy tirade is in keeping with this. By hinting that it is the low standards he accepts which are “considered elitist” I think Fry is trying to present himself as an ‘umble man of the people. Again, the idea that Fry has carefully chosen his words for a manipulative tactical agenda, rather than to build a rational case, is hard to resist.

  •  Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side.

Once more, the first sentence can be safely considered weasel words with no supporting evidence. I’m equally sceptical about all these “rude and haughty letters to broadcasters and newspapers”, though as I’m not a great TV watcher or newspaper reader I’m prepared to defer to Mr Fry on this point. But if you really do want to see some haughty rudeness you don’t need to hop channels or buy newspapers because many of the Fryisms quoted here excel in those regards. And speaking of quotations, I find myself sadly shaking my head when I see the quotation marks with which Fry attempts to cast doubt upon the validity of superior 'knowledge'. At least he comes clean in his next sentence and admits that he just hates. I certainly don’t feel short-changed in the “mocked, distrusted and disliked” department there!

I have a theory. It’s only a theory, and I admit that, rather than try to pass it off as a fact, but it’s this: Stephen Fry is educated and socialised enough to appreciate the value of proper English, so the claim that he just doesn’t seems unlikely at best. If inferences may be drawn from Fry’s public persona (and perhaps they shouldn’t be!) it seems very possible that Fry is, by nature, fairly elitist and perfectionist by nature. However, it’s undeniable that whatever you think of his opinions, he’s quite a bright chap. Perhaps even very bright. Bright enough, perhaps, to see that being a high-profile Grammar Nazi is just asking for trouble. Because sooner or later everybody slips up, and the bigger they come, the harder they fall.  Show me a man who says he’s never left a modifier dangling and I’ll show you a liar. I think dear Stephen has enough humility to know he’s no exception, but not quite enough humility to be able to face being imperfect by his own stated standards. My theory is that he’s anticipated(5) a humiliating public fall from grammatical grace and come out on the side of sloppiness so that he doesn’t have to worry about being seen to accidentally fuck up. Clever. Clever, but cowardly. If the theory is correct (and I have no evidence – it just happens to fit the facts) it’s no wonder that he hates it when “these pedants assume that [he is] on their side.” If he was more adept he’d be one of them.

  • When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?

For someone who claims particular rules of grammar “are of no importance [to him]”, Mr Fry seems strangely eager to convince us he knows them. Having subtly claimed some expertise, he goes on to dismiss a particular example as “that silly approach”. The linguistic jury may be out on that particular example, and individuals may have their opinions on the issue (I’m a “none of them is” man, myself), but... “silly”? That’s just a weasel word here. Silly to use it like that, really. What then follows is a classic example of Fry being so far up his own genius arsehole that he unwittingly provides a rather cute argument against his position. Oscar Wilde’s note to his publisher is an obvious request for his writing to be corrected as necessary – hardly the attitude of a Fryesque Grammar Anarchist! And Stephen, bless your cotton socks, I know you have some mental health issues and don’t for a moment mock you for them. I’d rather think it’s an everyday type of flaw in your reasoning, that your reaction to finding you fucked up your grammar is guilt (and tirades against correctness) rather than resolve (to improve).

  • There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

And so we get down to common or garden name-calling and sneering. Yes, Stephen, you’re still guilty of sneering even if you do get the word in first! It’s just that by whinging about it you make yourself look a hypocrite too. But let’s slow down a bit, and not allow ourselves to be steamrollered. In keeping with previous paragraphs, Fry’s first sentence here is devoid of actual supportable facts. As above, he uses weasel words - this time about Lynne Truss and John Humphrys - hoping that readers of the Gospel according to Fry will nod obsequiously and agree that Truss and Humphrys are despicable characters, even if they haven’t heard of them. But the fact is that both those people have written carefully worded, thoughtful, and passionate books on the subject of good grammar. In fact they enjoy language and give a shit about it. Something Mr Fry seems to think is impossible. Why does Fry keep coming back to this claim those who care about correctness do not - even cannot - enjoy it? I find that counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. "Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it." Why does he doubt it? Nabokov took way way more care with written English than would meet with Fry's approval.(6) But he isn't following Fry's Twitter feed, so Stephen the 'umble man of the people is toadying up to greengrocers. The out-and-out WRONGNESS of the apostrophe use he refers to (and I think we can all agree to call it "wrong", even if we use quotation marks as a bonus sneer) is downgraded to "less than perfect". I mean, seriously... WTF! This guy is wasted in showbiz. He should be in politics.

  • The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.

LOL! Another venomous start to a paragraph! Hey, it’s a good thing Stephen isn’t “rude and haughty about other people” isn’t it(!) And perish the thought that he might “show off [his] own superior ‘knowledge’” by chucking lots of Shakespeare words like a ninja flicking throwing stars – they’re a nuisance weapon, and rarely lethal. Yeah, ok, I’m taking the piss. But dear Stephen does rather invite it with his blatant double standards. The good news is that, at long last, we’ve reached what has become the battle cry of the grammatically challenged and/or nonchalant: “Language evolves!”
Well, yes, it does. More so in the past, but it’s still true enough to be worth discussing. So... Yes!!!!! Our language HAS evolved over the centuries. By embracing neologisms, and sluttily taking in foreign words it barely knows, it’s become one of the richest languages on the planet. It certainly has the largest vocabulary. And all this is great. Yay for evolving language. Up to a point. You see, it doesn’t follow that just because we understand what brought English to its present state we ought to welcome (or even engineer) further change. I don’t present that as an argument against further change; I’m just pointing out that an argument in favour of change is not to be found in this particular area. Adopting new verbs is sometimes – perhaps even often – very sensible.(7) Let's be honest: Who among us would really rather “send a text message to” a friend rather than simply “text” them? OK, so “text” isn’t a particularly ugly example, but if Stephen wants to set fire to the bandages of those who deny the usefulness of words like “hospitalise” then I’ll happily supply the matches. Objecting to a word because it’s “ugly” isn’t a very tenable position, especially if we’re concerned with language’s function as a communication tool. But I suppose I must allow that such an objection implies an appreciation of something else – a desire to “enjoy...sensual pleasure” of words, perhaps? What do you think, Stephen? Of course, having basically agreed with Mr Fry’s point on ugliness, I don’t really need to mock his attempts to align careless greengrocers with the likes of Stravinsky and Eliot. Hey-ho.
  • Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water.

I can’t prove it to a third party, but the first sentence of this passage proves to me that Stephen Fry is WRONG WRONG WRONG. Because I know my fight is for clarity. This doesn’t fit with Fry’s attack plan, so he chooses not to believe it. In fact he sneers at it. Fancy someone sneering about grammar!(8) That’s hardly an argument, is it! Language is functional, first and foremost. That doesn’t preclude pleasurable use, but we need to focus at the moment. Not only is language indicative of humanity’s intelligence, psychologists tell us it facilitates that intelligence. We need to think about things and talk about things. And the better equipped we are to talk about them, the better we can think about them. If the meaning of language changes over time, then the meaning of non-contemporary language becomes less clear. The writing of Chaucer is quaint to the point of being unintelligible to modern English speakers. Think about that. Try to get past any (quite understandable) national pride or affection, and to ignore the possible appeal of an almost-alien tongue that is still so undeniably connected with our own. Just think about the meaning. It’s all but lost. Old English is “all Greek” to the average person. “Yes,” you cry, “but what of it?” Well, if you look past the charm of difference, isn’t it a damned shame that the average person can’t pick up and enjoy a copy of Canterbury Tales? Yes, we love where our language has got to by evolving, and yes, let’s accept new words if they are useful and don’t have an existing equivalent, but let’s NOT run away with the idea that changing language is an inherently Good Thing. (The old chestnut “English has to evolve to stay alive” is just so many words - an actual example of sloppy and meaningless writing.) Allow things like “text” as a verb, but with a starting attitude that change is just as likely (even more, perhaps) to be a Bad Thing. As a final point here, consider long, wordy, rambling, near-incomprehensible legal documents. Why are they like that? Yes, it’s the dreaded “clarity” word. But just a minute! Even the most obfuscatory lawyer would admit there was a simpler way of wording that contract he just drew up. Today, at least. I suggest that the infuriating complexity of legal wording is a guard against “evolving” language - or at least against sloppy interpretation. And maybe, if the English language effectively coagulated overnight, and people generally started to respect the function (as well as beauty) of words, there would be less need for it.(9)

  • Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

Here Stephen gives us a strong clue that, to him, the whole issue is indeed about snobbery rather than clarity. I don’t try to write “correctly” in order to demonstrate anything about my mind. I’m aiming for clarity when I'm expressing what's on my mind. And Stephen doesn’t like that. In all probability he hates it, and hates people like me. So he pretends we don’t exist, and insists we are eye-poppingly insincere. It is Stephen Fry who is insincere, and here’s my evidence: Of rules of grammar, he says “none of these are of importance to me” yet seems to suggest that inferring an uncaring attitude from users of “extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language” is inappropriate. If you don’t speak/write “correctly” then you either don’t know the “rules” or you don’t care about them. Choose a side, Stephen, FFS.
I do have some sympathy with the point about suitability, but it’s not without its dangers. Of course I’m not going to agonise about split infinitives (as if I ever did!) when writing a note to the milkman. Because it’s not the end of the world if he doesn’t understand it. But here’s the thing: If I take that chance and assume that this time it won't matter,
(10) and if my disregard for the importance of dairy produce combines with my disrespect for the milkman and results in a totally fucked-up delivery, whose fault is it? Yep... mine!

And I done got the balls to admit it.

National Treasure
(but would you want him on your debating team?)

(1) Well, almost singlehandedly. Who could forget the sparkle brought to the flagging series by Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall), and Baron Manfred von Richthofen (Adrian Edmondson)?
(2) For example, Peter Hitchins. (See the rather irrelevant and below-the-belt snipe in his blog entry Stephen Fry - A Stupid Person's idea of What an Intelligent Person is Like.)
(3) Between moments of cringe-inducing ignorance which, considering he’s being fed through an earpiece by a team of googling experts, are rather mystifying.
(4) The third is, of course, Aggressive Religion, of which the first and second are actually mutant versions. The fourth is Science Worship, a singularly self-contradictory religion, the frankly dangerous irony of which its perpetrators seem inherently unable to grasp.
(5) Perhaps not though. Perhaps he habitually dropped the same clanger and decided to do something before people noticed.
(6)  I suppose Fry would be disappointed to learn that not only did this emotionally stunted Grammar Nazi spot his allusion to Lolita, but also that the line paraphrased is one I fell in love with the first time I read it, simply because it's so sensuously beautiful. I even wholeheartedly forgive its factual inaccuracy.
(7) Not even the despicable John Humphrys would ban all such neologisms. Fry has either forgotten this or has not actually read Humphrys's book. His objection is to a new word being invented when a perfectly serviceable one already exists. I’m with him there, and I hope I’m not alone. Those who embrace unnecessary neologisms end up looking more ignorant than trendy.
(8) I'm not just imagining the sneer. Check out Fry's own spoken version of his tirade if you want to see how he goes about constructing an "argument" by adopting a sneering tone of voice.
 If you believe Stephen’s assertion that the argument for clarity holds no water, consider this story. Yes, it’s exceptional, but the point is this: No one thinks that their email or speech will be misunderstood. The problems with the “it doesn't matter as long as it doesn’t matter” mentality are that it depends upon assumptions one isn't necessarily in a position to make safely, and it is an obviously circular argument. For something else circular, see below.
(10) Do you ever get frustrated when waiting to drive onto a roundabout...? You’re waiting for a car to pass, when suddenly, and with no indication, it zips off down the road you’re waiting on. Grr! You may have wondered what’s going through the mind of someone who drives like that, or whether they even possess a mind at all. Well, having pulled one from his car and knocked his head against the door pillar until he talked, I can tell you. It goes something like this: “Well, if you’re driving along, and you want to turn, you don’t actually need to use an indicator under certain circumstances. Yes, it’s true. You see, if you check in your rear-view mirror and there are no vehicles behind you, and if you check your wing mirrors and there’s nothing coming up alongside you, and if you’ve checked all the nearby pavements and there are no pedestrians about, and if there are no poor buggers waiting to get onto the roundabout after you may or may not pass them, then you don’t have to go through the anguish of extending a finger and moving the indicator stalk two inches.” Like sloppy writers, drivers with that mindset make two mistakes: First, the shaky assumption that they have accurately assessed the environment and all its potential risks, and second that the effort involved in arriving at the decision to not indicate is somehow a better use of their time and brainpower than JUST BLOODY INDICATING. Me, I’d rather people that dim-witted skipped the “thinking” stage and just got straight on with not indicating. At least it keeps both their hairy palms on the steering wheel. 

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