Poised to anger Raving of Ravenswood

YOU might think there are more serious issues - global warming, American imperialism, Sunday's result at Carrow Road. But if there's one thing guaranteed to rouse Disgusted of Grundisburgh and Raving of Ravenswood, it's bad language.

YOU might think there are more serious issues - global warming, American imperialism, Sunday's result at Carrow Road. But if there's one thing guaranteed to rouse Disgusted of Grundisburgh and Raving of Ravenswood, it's bad language.

By which I don't mean the odd oath or even the dive of everyday speech into what used to be called the gutter.

What I mean is the appalling spelling and grammar of…well, of everyone except Miss Raving and Mr Disgusted.

You might not think it matters that the high street is spattered with misplaced apostrophes, but to the Ravings and Disgusteds it does. And I must admit I occasionally get disgusted enough to rave a little myself.

The world is full of people who think their command of English is better than others' and appoint themselves to defend the assaulted language.

Not all of them are teachers or journalists, either - in fact slipping standards in teaching and journalism are often held accountable.

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The breadth of feeling on the issue was shown dramatically by the astonishing success a few years back of Lynne Truss's little treatise on pedantry, Eats Shoots and Leaves.

I detest the book and have so far refused to read it on the very good grounds that I didn't think of it or get it to the publisher myself first. Nevertheless, it struck a chord with the reading public.

And let's face it, that's all of us (or you wouldn't have the Evening Star in your hands at this moment).

There's a very good reason why language should matter to us so much. More even than our opposable thumb and walking upright, it's what makes us human. It's what separates us from the other animals - some would say what raises us above them.

Yes, our use of tools is far greater and more sophisticated; yes, we are vastly more inventive and creative. But it's the sophistication of our languages that makes all that possible - our ability to co-operate, to pool ideas, to learn from each other.

Language is our greatest invention, our most essential tool. We can't even think without it.

So does that make the minutiae of spelling and grammar matter? Well no, actually.

What matters is our ability to communicate successfully. And whether or not you put an apostrophe in potatoes, an unnecessary 'e' in the middle of aging, or choose to boldly split your infinitives, is really of no consequence.

And yet…

That little two-word non-sentence will still have Disgusted and Raving spitting into their teas.

The “correct” or “incorrect” use of English has been a subject for raised voices and blood pressure since it was normal to hyphenate “to-morrow” and the accepted pronunciation of “envelope” was “on-velope”.

They were discussing it heatedly yet again on the radio this week.

One of the presenters was standing up for “an hospital” and “an historic” - an horrible out-dated mis-usage still favoured by some papers (if you pronounce the 'h' there's no need of the “an”).

Another was deriding the use of the verb “commute” as a noun - as in “a long daily commute”.

Also this week, I noticed both the BBC and The Times - once considered the guardians of all that is proper - using the adjective “royal” as a noun. As in “a blackmail attempt against an unnamed royal”.

One of the reasons English is such a great language, so infinitely full of variety and possibilities, is that it is so adaptable.

In English you can use “commute” and “royal” as nouns, “message” as a verb and “star” as an adjective and everyone will understand you. You can't do that in every language.

Some years ago, I wrote a style guide for Evening Star reporters. It was I who decided, for example, that “offside” should be one word and “off-centre” hyphenated.

I started out thinking a lot of it would be matters of right and wrong. The further I went, the more I realised that most of it was a matter of choice - and that one choice was often as good as another.

Of course, it's important to get your ideas across interestingly and effectively. But to do that you need freedom of thought more than pedantry.

And I am left with this motto from an unnamed American: “There ain't a word that cain't be verbed.”

Miss Raving and Mr Disgusted would be appalled. I think it's brilliant.

MY piece last week about the pseudo-science used in advertising and on product labels touched a few nerves.

One reaction was this from Duncan Berry who said: “Well said. I'm a science teacher doing battle with technobabble every day.”

Poor Duncan. Another reader, identifying herself only as Ruby, wanted to draw my attention to 'pentapeptides' - which sounds like something to have you rushing to the doctor.

Since much of the nonsense applies to cleaning products, I might have mentioned the wonder new chemical I've found. It's easy to use, very effective on grease and even stubborn limescale marks, and it's not at all expensive.

Some people like it with salt on their chips...

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