Lashing the Lashers

I have already discussed The Academy of Contemporary English in my post Lashing the Wind. What I didn’t mention there is that they have a test for us to complete to see if our English meets their standards. It’s a curious mixture of questions about basic spelling and punctuation conventions and more complex matters of usage. The academicians seem to think both can be dealt with together, but never mind that for the moment. The upshot is that they believe that there is something wrong with each of these sentences.

(1) I shall be happy if I only get half of the answers correct.
(2) But nobody else will know if I get them all wrong or not.
(3) Whose business is it anyhow if I do well or not?
(4) I have tried these tests before but this is different to the others.
(5) People don’t write English today like they did in the 1920’s.
(6) What methodology applies here?

In (1) the academicians want us to place ‘only’ in front of ‘half’ instead of ‘get’, because ‘only’ must be placed as close as possible to the word that it modifies. In some sentences the positioning of ‘only’ can change the meaning of the sentence, but not here. Still, rules is rules. Never mind that many of us would leave it where it is. They’re academicians, see? They KNOW.

In (2) and (3) they’re bothered about ‘if’. What you need is ‘whether’. Ignore the fact that the OED’s ninth definition of ‘if’ is ‘introducing a noun-clause depending on the verb see, ask, learn, doubt, know, or the like: Whether.’ Ignore, too, the fact that ‘if’ has been used this way from ‘Beowulf’ to the late nineteenth century, by authors including William Caxton, translators of the King James Bible, Dryden and Matthew Prior. The academicians have spoken.

‘Different to’ is no good in (4). Hear this: ‘Most British people say “different to” and most Americans say “different than” and they are all wrong because the ONLY correct form is ‘different FROM’. See? These people know better than some of the most distinguished writers in English. They also know better than almost everyone else who speaks English. ‘At a conservative estimate,’ they observe in a jaw-dropping claim, ‘it can be said that some 90% of the English mother-tongue people who use this word use it wrongly.   Even if that were to rise to 100%, their use would still be wrong’.  Let me repeat that, in case you think you misread it: ‘Even if that were to rise to 100%, their use would still be wrong’.  If all native English speakers in the world use a particular construction, it can still be wrong.  Ah, but then, of course, not all native English speakers are blessed with what the academicians have no hesitation in telling us they have: ‘a special insight into the workings of the English language’.

You can’t use ‘like’ in (5). It has to be ‘as’. Why? For no better reason, it seems, than that they say so. Writers including Shakespeare have used ‘like’ as a conjunction from the sixteenth century to the twentieth.

‘Methodology’ means the study of method, the academicians tell us, so you can’t use it in (6). We have to say ‘method’.  We could ask how they know that ‘the study of method’ wasn’t what the writer intended to convey, but we don’t need to. One of the OED’s definitions of ‘methodology’ is ‘a method or body of methods used in a particular field of study or activity’.

Don’t be fooled by these people. They are not the experts they claim to be. Left to them, English would become a bland and ineffective tool for expressing thought and emotion instead of the vigorous and infinitely varied medium it always has been.


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