The Death of the English Language

Here is the text of a talk I gave last Thursday evening to my Toastmaster club – London Corinthians. Let me know your thoughts….

(NB. All characters are entirely fictional, apart from my Dad who is entirely real, but would never be that rude about the leader of the Conservative Party)

Everywhere I go people tell me that the English language is dying.

I was in the pub the other day with my mate Dave who was incensed by the careless way people use apostrophes (I know – I really should get myself some more interesting mates).

“I was driving past B&Q the other day,” he said. “And they were offering to sell me BBQ’s WITH an apostrophe. Everywhere you look people are throwing in these apostrophes – CD’s, 1980’s. It’s even on proper road signs now!”

“Road signs?” I asked.

“Yes! I was driving down to Somerset last weekend. I was relaxing and enjoying the country views, when I drove past a sign telling me this road was unsuitable for HGV’s. There’s no apostrophe in there. Is there?!”

“No,” I said, nodding vigorously. “Certainly not.”

“Well why do they keep putting them in there?”

“I don’t know,” I said, before quickly finishing my pint and heading home.

But before I got home I had to pop into the supermarket to pick up some bits. I joined the nine items or less queue, and as I stood there wondering whether or not Dave was right and the English language is indeed going to Hell in a handcart, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

It was an elderly lady. “Have you seen that sign?” She pointed at the sign above the till.

“Yes I have,” I said, and politely pointed out that I only had three items.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “But it’s wrong isn’t it? The sign. It says ‘less than nine items’. Anyone with half a brain knows it should be ‘fewer than nine items’.”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course it should.” Before I was summoned to the till.

Back home there were yet more people brimming over with rage at the deterioration of our language. Mum and Dad were staying for a few days.

“Look at this,” shouted my Dad as soon as I put my head round the living room door. He was pointing at the TV where he was watching the news.

“What? What’s happened?” I asked, immediately worried that something terrible had happened.

“This Cameron fellow,” said my Dad. “He’s an absolute imbecile.”

I looked at the TV to see the Leader of the Opposition grinning in full interview mode.

“Agreed,” I said. “What’s he done now?”

“He keeps on telling me I know what he means. Y’know. Y’know. Y’know. That’s all he says! Well I don’t know, do I? If I did know why would I be sat here listening to him give this ruddy interview?!”

You see what I mean?

Everywhere I turn there are people telling me that the English language is dying. And it is a worry, especially for me as a professional writer. If the English language dies then I’m out of a job!

And that’s part of the reason I love coming to Toastmasters. Here I’m amongst fellow language lovers.

There was a fellow at my last Toastmaster club – Manchester Orators – who was especially keen on preserving the language. Stephen was a superb speaker, a very successful businessman, and an all round good egg. I remember him giving a speech in which he told us of the day his daughter came home from university with some rather dramatic news.

“Dad,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you. It’s important.”

“Well,” said Stephen. “You’d better come into my study then.”

“Dad, it’s this,” she said, obviously nervous. “I’m…I’m gonna have a baby.”

Stephen recoiled in shock and horror. For some time he didn’t know what to say. His daughter waited for him to collect his thoughts. Eventually he said: “You’re my daughter. I love you. Over the past 20 years I’ve paid for you to have the finest upbringing possible. You’ve gone to the best schools, you’re at one of the greatest universities in the world, and still you come here, and you have the nerve to say to me that ‘you’re GONNA’. You mean ‘you’re going to’!”

So, what lies behind all this?

Well, I recently found this rather revealing quote. It was in a book called ‘Attitudes toward English Teaching’, and the authors had spent a long time observing the teaching of English in schools. They concluded:

“Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”

Again, in his “Methods of Study in English” MW Smith said: The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”

I’m sure that many of these people who keep telling me that English is dying would agree with that statement. The only problem is that that the first book was written 1961. The second in 1885!

Look into it more closely and you’ll find that every generation throughout history has complained about declining standards of English. People were even complaining about declining standards of English as far back as ancient Sumeria. Among the first of the clay tablets discovered was one written by a teacher in which he complains about the sudden drop-off in students’ writing ability.

The point is of course that language changes. What was important in language 30 years ago is less so now. And what is important today will be less so in 30 years time.

So, while we should all try to uphold standards and communicate as precisely as we can, we shouldn’t lose too much sleep about it. In my view, rumours of the death of the English language have been very much exaggerated.

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4 Responses to “The Death of the English Language”

  1. Katy Askew Says:

    Interesting post, Alex. I share your frustrations with the poor use of apostrophes and many other grammatical blunders! I think to a certain extent it’s true that we shouldn’t get so uptight (does it really matter that our friends in the US insist on saying ‘often times’ when just ‘often’ would suffice?!?), but sometimes a wrongly placed apostrophe can completely change the meaning of a sentence and as we become more and more reliant on the written word for communication, this could cause some major issues!

  2. Bella Brodie Says:

    I’m also wondering what they’re teaching at schools and universities. My daughter (currently in the final stages of study for GCSE English) wrote a thank you letter (remarkable in itself) but used no punctuation whatsoever.

    When I queried it she said it was how they were taught and that she’d be marked down if she added it in an exam. I was astonished. If she went into administrative work she’d have to change her style straight away so why on earth are they teaching it as the default standard? Grrrrrr!! My father is a retired English teacher with a passion for good grammar and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him.

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  4. John Wood Says:

    Great blog post!

    According to Wikipedia, it’s OK to use apostrophes with some plurals:

    Also, you say “I remember him giving a speech…” but shouldn’t that be “I remember his giving a speech…” since ‘giving’ is a noun? Maybe that’s optional – or just pedantic?

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