Mistakes, trust and power

A long time ago, students on my English Language and Literature course were invited by the Language professor to come to the next lecture with a new word that had been coined in the previous year. I knew exactly when mine had appeared and who invented it. A certain Jo Grimond had said we needed an Ombudswoman. I shan’t go into the gender politics here, but my example had a short shelf life. Others had more clue about new words which would last.

However the crucial aim was getting us to recognise the fluidity and development of the English language which has been going on since Chaucer’s version of English triumphed over a number of other regional varieties. Grammar and syntax can change but at a much slower pace. Even slower are changes in spelling.

I was of the generation that took grammar and syntax very seriously. In those days if you wanted to do an English degree you had to have O-Level Latin. I wouldn’t dream of bringing that back but I recognised that Latin (and indeed Greek) could help with understanding the structure of language and thought. Even Old Icelandic, which was taught in English studies as the result of an error in linguistic history, could make its contribution. Kate Adie, who was doing her Scandinavian Studies on the floor above, had a much more legitimate reason for studying Icelandic sagas!

Perhaps my shock at seeing something on BBC News on Saturday has something to do with my 1960s student background. Or perhaps it is just the cantankerousness that fits the stereotype of advancing years. The offending language was on the moving headlines floating across the bottom of the screen:

UK hospitals begin receiving doses of Ofxord Uni/AstraZeneca vaccine.

I know that sub-titles tend to be produced by a hybrid input of professional listeners and audio-computers, which can come up with some strange equivalents for spoken words. But the news headlines have to involve more direct human agency, and therefore accuracy. My moan about the mistake is not merely quibbling. Of course everyone knows what it was meant to say, but that’s not the point. As one of our institutions that at its best really is world-beating, the BBC cannot afford inaccuracy or sloppiness, especially at the moment. We pay it to get things right and expect attention to detail. I know that the same could be said of the Government. Whatever other countries make of the standards of the current administration, the BBC enjoys a level of trust across the world that should not be squandered.

The underlying political consideration relates to clarity. If you can express yourself in speech or in writing and be certain that people understand what you are saying, even if they disagree with you, then you have a disproportionate amount of power. As a party, one of our core values is the need for a wider distribution of power. This is reflected in different policies and priorities but part of our vision for a more just society is a world in which every child should have the tools to express themselves clearly.

I have argued with some success in my local party that FOCUS readers are entitled to accuracy and clarity, not least on our former council estates. Perhaps readers will understand the messages in spite of any errors. Sometimes if there is any doubt they simply stop reading. As a reward for my efforts I get to do the bulk of the last minute proofreading at short notice. It is something I feel passionate/obsessional about. It has nothing to do with elitism or the pomposity of our Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who seem to think that their cleverness is easily demonstrated by the odd Latin phrase or classical reference!

* Geoff Reid is a Bradford City Councillor and a retired Methodist Minister.

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15 Comments

  • I thank Geoff Reid for his article. A lot of issues were raised for me.
    Latin is one. I obtained an O lever in Latin, I think just over the pass mark. I can see no reason why the national curriculum should be so prescriptive. I agree that there should be a core which is common, but schools should be free to innovate.
    That takes me to grammar. My belief is that the language we use is in fact American. At school I was told not to use « OK » as it was American. Whether we approve or not we speak mid-Atlantic as dictated by the US media industry.
    For the same reasons we need not to worry about the changes in grammar.
    The issue of communication is though vital. If the party is to progress much attention needs to be paid to it. We need to be able to put complex ideas short and simple messages. We need to look at things like « take back control » and for that matter “Brexit” .My opinion is that because we have heard them so much we accept that they mean something. I do not know the best way to challenge the ideas behind the words.
    That is the problem for the party. The lack of resources to do the background research means that the party has great problems in designing strong campaigns,
    So thank you Geoff, slowly I might be able to make sense of the world.

  • When I arrived at University many years ago almost the first person I met was a lecturer in Old Icelandic. She spent every summer in Iceland, which seemed a very odd thing to do in those days. She told me that the first time she went there she could only speak Old Icelandic – which is rather like someone arriving in the UK today only able to converse in Anglo-Saxon.

  • A certain Jo Grimond had said we needed an Ombudswoman. I shan’t go into the gender politics here, but my example had a short shelf life.

    And rightly so. Ombudsman is a gender neutral term….

    ‘Who is the Ombudsman? | Ombudsman New Zealand’:
    https://www.ombudsman.parliament.nz/about-ombudsman/who-ombudsman

    The word Ombudsman is Swedish and loosely translated means ‘grievance person’. Ombudsman is a gender neutral term. Dame Beverley Wakem was the previous Chief Ombudsman and there have been several women Ombudsmen.

  • John Marriott 4th Jan '21 - 1:42pm

    I confess. I am a language fascist. I hate obvious spelling mistakes, except for the odd typo. I hate singular nouns being made plural (example: ‘the government are’). I remember my local barber once putting a notice in his window, which read; “Closed for my anual (sic) holiday”. Then there was my tutor at Cambridge telling our tutorial that he had just received a letter from his bank asking him to pay a particular account ‘per anum’, with the rejoinder; “Well, I’ve heard of paying through the nose; but…”

    Yes, it can be argued that the English language benefits (bigly?) from its ability spontaneously to change (or should we say “to spontaneously change” today?) unlike France whose language needs an ‘Académie’ to adjudicate on any changes. However, I really do get annoyed when people write things like “I could of told you that” and really think that it’s (or ‘its’ if you really prefer) a sign of laziness. For me it’s a sign that, in certain aspects, our language has dumbed.

    Finally, the other day an advert appeared on LDV for a firm dealing with people wishing to go and live abroad, with the headline “Immigrate to Canada?”. No, you EMIGRATE to Canada from here, surely. I even emailed them to point out the mistake and, so far, have not received a reply. I should know. My old U.K. passport when I lived in Canada used to carry the stamp ‘Landed Immigrant’.

  • Peter Watson 4th Jan '21 - 3:28pm

    Unless I’ve missed something else, accidentally swapping the ‘x’ and ‘f’ in “doses of Oxford” seems a pretty forgivable bit of mistyping. I just tried repeatedly typing the phrase as quickly as I could and messed up a few times.

    When I read the example I was expecting a much funnier clanger like some of the examples shown here (ironically, by a BBC reporter) : https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/7e8a38b2-3836-4c41-b385-6208410ac656.

  • As a writer, one of the things I was most proud of as a councillor was to introduce Plain English standards for all external Council communications. I was scoffed at by the Tories who referred to it as dumbing down. Thinking through a letter or leaflet in Plain English mode not only increases its clarity, but also makes it accessible to people with limited literacy, or those whose first language is not English. And most of all, it removes the pomposity and obfuscation that comes with Council-speak.

  • On the topic of Latin I have to accept that that it an important part of our culture. The fact that it is not the only important language from the past means to me that we should compte my change our way of looking at the school curriculum. Perhaps we could start with what 16 year olds actually learn, rather then what we try to teach them.
    On the subject of Latin. I was taught Latin at school to O level. It was a Catholic school and at the time the mass was in Latin. Each year the school has a sung mass. The fact that we spent two days rehearsing each year meant that I memorised the words. The Latin lessons were taught as if it were a code, however knowing real sentences helped me.
    We also learned Greek one year, although in my case learned is stretching the meaning of the word. We were allowed to stop after a year, I hadn’t completely mastered the alphabet, but as I studied maths in sixth form and university I soon knew at least most of the letters.
    By the way I continue to believe we speak American, and the Queen’s English has become mid-Atlantic.

  • John Marriott 5th Jan '21 - 7:59am

    @Tom Harney
    Ah, Latin, what a wonderful language! Who can beat such phrases as “Brutus adoration” or “Caesar adsum iam forte”? Former US Vice President, Dan (Mr Potatoe) Quayle, thought so, when, on a visit to “Latin America”, bemoaned the fact that “I ought to have learned more Latin at school”. Was he kidding his hosts? Knowing him, I doubt it. How come so many dumbos get chosen as Republican Presidential or Vice Presidential candidates?

  • John Marriott 5th Jan '21 - 8:02am

    Bloody spell checker ruining my jokes again! That first ‘Latin’ quote should have read “Brutus aderat”!

  • Steve Trevethan 5th Jan '21 - 8:41am

    Might a use/misuse of public English by the B.B.C. be the use of the child’s valediction ‘Bye! Bye!’ when closing a piece?
    Weather forecasts provide an example.
    Is this sloppiness, fashion, cult behaviour, an attempt to infantilise the audience or what?
    If it has an effect of encouraging the audience to be less alert and critical it seems to be a serious matter.

  • John Marriott 5th Jan '21 - 12:51pm

    @John Bicknell
    The one that gets me is ‘it’s’. Why can’t people get it right? Even my iPad always wants to change ‘its’ to ‘it’s’ every time I type it! It’s really quite simple. If you want to abbreviate ‘it is’ type ‘it’s’. Everything else is ‘ITS’.

    PS There used to be a firm in Lincoln whose sign read “Training at it’s best” – clearly not the case when it came to grammar, spelling and syntax!

  • Peter Watson 5th Jan '21 - 1:46pm

    “as I studied maths in sixth form and university I soon knew at least most of the letters”
    I’m reminded of a particularly complicated fluid dynamics lecture at university many years ago in which we were struggling to follow the maths lecturer’s scrawling across the blackboards, especially the mixture of zeta (ζ) and chi (ξ). Somebody complained that all of the symbols looked the same and there was a plaintive cry from a Greek student, “No they don’t!”

  • Sue Sutherland 5th Jan '21 - 7:12pm

    Language is such an interesting subject because it’s primary purpose is communication but it’s secondary purpose is to create division and identify ‘ the other’. If you don’t know how to spell a word or pronounce it properly then you can be looked down upon as uneducated, if you don’t know middle class language then it’s a barrier to attending university, which it was for several years.
    Professions use jargon for clarity of communication between other members of that profession but also to identify those members and keep others away.
    Different classes use different language as Nancy Mitford brilliantly explained in her book ‘U and non U’ and Americans deliberately simplified the English language to remove class barriers that revealed that the speaker didn’t belong. On a train to Leicester my daughter was asked by an American if this was the train for Lugaboruga. He had fallen foul of the pernickety pedantry of the English (in particular), but fortunately he was indeed on the train to Loughborough.

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