Snake Oil, Anyone?

Of Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’, Geoffrey Pullum wrote

English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.

I had a similar reaction on reading on Peter Harvey’s blog of someone called Nevile Gwynne, who fancies himself as the man to help the British with their language. He’s precisely the wrong sort of person to do it. Anyone who claims, as he does, that Do you see whom I see? is grammatical and that ‘Do you see who I see? isn’t  is deaf to how the language is used and insensitive to the variations of which it is capable. As Peter says, whom is simply not used in questions in this way. Peter also demolishes Gwynne’s example of restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, of which he seems to have only a shaky grasp.

The profile of the man given in the UK’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ confirms the initial impression. He gets his class of adults to chant ‘A noun is the name of a person, place or thing’. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. What about inevitability or willingness? Even if you allow them to be things, there’s rather more to say about what a noun is than that. Perhaps he goes on in his lesson to discuss a noun’s morphological and syntactic properties, but I somehow doubt it. The fact that he has been endorsed by the Prince of Wales, that other meddler in affairs of which he knows nothing, is not encouraging.

I find reports of this man’s activities disturbing because there is indeed a vacuum in public awareness of how language works, but the trouble with vacuums is they risk being filled by the first thing that comes along. On the comment in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ that

It is astonishing that an elderly former businessman who has never been to teacher training college, worn an academic gown or taught in a school should be creating such a commotion

Peter writes

If only it were astonishing that such a person could become known and respected as a teacher and usage guru! It’s the sort of thing that gets professional teachers and usage guides a bad name.

Why are the charlatans allowed to get away with it? Because, I suppose, they offer a quick fix in place of a hard-won understanding and because most people couldn’t care less.

More in this subsequent  post.

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5 Comments

Filed under English Language, Language

5 responses to “Snake Oil, Anyone?

  1. Many thanks indeed for the kind mention. I agree that the problem is that there is a quick fix, but it is offered precisely in a field that is notorious for the popular belief that ‘my opinion is as good as yours any day of the week — and anyway, I know what I was taught at school.’ The first of those assertions is certainly wrong and the second almost always is. People who argue with teachers about language rules do not, I suppose, argue with a doctor’s diagnosis, a lawyer’s explanation of the law, or the penance imposed by a priest.
    I remember once visiting a friend in Britain who offered me ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ to peruse in the clear expectation that I would welcome it as exactly my sort of book. They were surprised by my cool reception, and also by my rapid observation of two flaws in it.
    1) The subtitle is ‘The zero tolerance guide’ but by strict rules compound adjectives should be hyphenated.
    2) The author is surprised by Fowler’s approval of the Oxford comma without apparently working out that a book published by Oxford University Press could hardly do otherwise!

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    • I fear it comes from the false belief that if you speak a language you must know everything about it. As was said, I believe, in another context, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

      Even admirers of Ms Truss might be hard pressed to show that she has made any difference.

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