Tag Archives: David Crystal

Rapid Thomas

Tom Swift is the leading character in a series of junior fiction books first published in the early twentieth century. Their prose style is characterised by the way in which the author uses adverbs to add variety to quotative verbs. This feature has turned into a rich source of fun for parodists, who over the years have produced many examples in which the adverb attempt to match the speech. Here is a selection taken from ‘Language Play’ by David Crystal (recommended, and now available as an eBook).

‘Can I get you something?’ Tom asked fetchingly.

‘Try that direction,’ said Tom pointedly.

‘We’re out of whiskey,’ Tom said dispiritedly.

‘My electrocardiogram’s fine,’ Tom said wholeheartedly.

‘Wouldn’t you prefer a poodle?’ asked Tom’s father doggedly.

‘It’s the maid’s night off,’ said Tom helplessly.

‘The needle has reached zero,’ Tom said naughtily.

‘We like fairy tales,’ said Tom grimly.

‘Let’s get on with the operation,’ the surgeon cut in sharply.

‘I used to be a pilot,’ Tom explained.

‘Your visits to the psychiatrist have been helpful,’ Tom reminded him.

‘I’m quite disconcerted,’ said the conductor.

‘We’ve been discharged,’ said the electricians.

‘I’m nonplussed,’ said the mathematician.

‘We’ll arrest the president,’ the soldiers cooed.

‘You must look after your spaniel,’ Tom dogmatized.

‘I fancy a bet,’ he said winningly.

‘I’m running home to mother,’ she said fleetingly.


Filed under English Language, Language

Teach Them What They Know

The teaching of English has recently been in the news in the UK following the proposal for a test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling for children between the ages of 7 and 11. David Crystal was consulted on the test, and has set out some of his objections to in this post on his blog. The numerous comments support his view. The basic problem seems to be summed up in those words that drew so much attention a couple of weeks ago in the letter written to the Education Secretary by 100 academics: ‘too much, too young’.

Children don’t need to be taught the grammar of their own dialect. They learn that by the time they go to school, without instruction and without effort. What they need to be taught is the Standard English dialect. How that is done and when it is done is a matter for professional educationalists. Because Standard English is the dialect of the printed and written word its use requires instruction in the conventions of punctuation and spelling by teachers who are themselves properly trained, and who understand that punctuation and spelling are not grammar.

Grammar is, in very simple terms, a description of how a language works, and a prior understanding of it will help in learning Standard English, just as it will help in learning other languages, provided the distinction between learning grammar and learning about grammar is maintained. How and when it is introduced is again a matter for professional educationalists. But here’s an off-the-wall proposal to get the harrumphers going. Why shouldn’t schools teach grammar in terms of the predominant regional dialect? This would give young children something they could relate to, it would remove the shame that it is sometimes associated with regional dialects and it would give children a sound basis on which to build when they came to learn  Standard English, as they most certainly must.


Filed under Dialects, Education, English Language, Standard English

Too Much, Too Wrong

In his book about the English language, ‘The King’s English’, the British novelist Kingsley Amis divided speakers of English into two groups, as follows:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Whatever you may think of berks, the crazed Nevile Gwynne is clearly of the latter persuasion. I mention the wretched man’s name again because it has come up in connection with the equally misguided Bad Grammar Awards. The judges have directed their disdain against a letter written by 100 academics commenting on the British government’s proposed educational reforms, including reforms in the teaching of English. Gwynne has criticised this paragraph in the academics’ letter:

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

He objects to ‘too much too young’ and the way in which the second clause is joined to the first in the last sentence. I don’t need to add to Mark Liberman’s hatchet job in this Language Log post.

Gwynne might deserve a more sympathetic response to his strictures if his own writing could serve as a model, but it doesn’t. On one part of his website we find these four sentences:

Interestingly, the only people in the room who had been completely “unphased” by how I had treated the children were the children themselves!

It should not be ‘unphased’ but ‘unfazed’.

Today I started off by giving them some revision what we had already learned quite extensively.

It should be ‘revision of’.

What is interesting, as far as the story is concerned, is that the mother seem to be very much giving me the impression that she was no longer protesting about what I had done with Billy, and was coming as close as she felt she could to apologising.

It should be ‘mother seemed’.

One of the most important thing is that I am teaching the children to do, and was very much teaching them to do in this instance, is to focus their attention.

It should be ‘things’, not ‘thing’ and thereafter the syntax is hopelessly muddled.

On another page, he seems to be writing about himself in the third person, and in decidedly flattering terms. That page contains this convoluted sentence:

He is the author of what is, by any standards, a fascinating and important book, The Truth About Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, which shows clearly and very readably that the reality concerning the man almost universally regarded as the infamous Borgia Pope, easily the worst of all the Popes, there have ever been, is completely different from that man that one almost always reads about in books and sees represented in films and on television.

After several readings you can make it out, but stating that ‘reality’ is different from ‘that man that . . .’ is at best clumsy, and there is no excuse for a comma between ‘Popes’ and ‘there’.

He could perhaps be dismissed as a harmless eccentric if he didn’t prompt headlines such as the Daily Mail’s ‘This marvellous moralist is the corrective to claptrap’. This is just the sort of thing to appeal to those who like to see their own prejudices confirmed rather than to take the trouble to seek out the facts.

Gwynne’s petty response to the letter by the 100 academics risks drawing attention away from the seriousness of some of the implications of the government report which prompted it, particularly in regard to the teaching of English. Fortunately, we still have people like David Crystal who care enough, and, just as importantly, know enough, to challenge the politically driven nostrums included in the report. Michael Gove (British Secretary of State for Education) probably won’t read David Crystal’s post on the subject, but I hope some of my readers will. I know that not all will, so here are the final few sentences:

I hope things will change – and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There’s nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.


Filed under Language

The Reason Is Because The World In Which We Live In

In this interview, David Crystal speaks with his usual good sense about blends. A blend is usually thought of as a portmanteau word, such as ‘motel or ‘brunch. But in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’ he defines it as ‘The result of two elements fusing to form a new word or construction’ (my emphasis). The example he gives in the interview, and in his talk, is from a song by the Beatles, in which Paul McCartney sings of ‘the world in which we live in’. Those preparing his talk thought the repetition of ‘in’ was a mistake and tried to change it, but the point of his talk is that it isn’t a mistake. When we speak we do this sort of thing all the time. We start a sentence with one construction in mind, and finish it with another.

A good example which he himself uses in the interview is ‘the reason . . . is because . . .’ It’s enough to say ‘the reason . . . is that . . .’, but in mid-sentence speakers forget how they began it, and, because they’re aware that causation is somehow involved, they feel the need to use ‘because’ at some point. One of the best known pedants in the UK is the otherwise excellent broadcaster John Humphrys, but I have heard him, too, use ‘the reason . . . is because . . .’ (David Crystal’s long defence following the attack on him by John Humphrys sets the record straight on all sorts of misapprehensions.)

In general, as David Crystal says, blends have no place in the written language, but that is not to say they are incorrect in speech. The spoken language marches to the beat of a different drum.


Filed under Spoken English