Minding Our Language
Me, I’m the master of the split infinitive, can’t spell ‘receive’ and still sometimes get confused about when to put full stops inside brackets, but other than that, my editor doesn’t have to waste much biro ink on me. Or should that be Biro ink? However, while I’m as exercised as anyone by signs like ‘Potato’s £1’ I try to remember that the English language is in a constant state of flux, and if it wasn’t it would be a dead language, so I’ll accept ‘train station’ for ‘railway station’ and even ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’. Lately however, all kinds of grammatical peculiarities have been slipping into newspapers, and all I can think is that some writers don’t understand the fundamentals of grammar at all.
Of course there are other writers who are erudite enough to have a little fun with language; how else can I explain Guardian writer Marina Hyde’s attempts to get ‘vagocracy’ into a headline? And surely that suggests the root word would be ‘vagona’?
This week I went to see Patrick Barlow’s ridiculous but rather funny ‘Ben Hur’ at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, and one of the running gags in it is the overuse and repetition of verbs and adjectives in actors’ speech – the sort of thing you’d get in an amateur production where the dialogue has been over-amended. It’s a very English joke, and not to everyone’s taste, but I love the peculiarities of English. There’s an exchange in Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ which (from memory) runs something like:
Lady Guest: Isn’t it funny that your husband and maid should both suffer accidents on the same day?
Hostess: Yes, if that sort of thing amuses you.
The clue here being the double-use of the word ‘funny’ coupled with the hostess’s dislike of her guest – but if you have to explain such things they lose their power. I love understated English expressions, from ‘helping the police with their enquiries” (ie arrested) to ‘sweating’ onions, to the use of ‘exercised’ meaning angered by. Dickens’ works are packed with lovely sidelong glances at language, and there’s a terrific book (back via Print On Demand) called ‘The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dicken’s Imagination’ by John Carey that anyone interesting in writing really should read.
Perhaps few of us are so analytical to see how we play with words, but certain stylistic tics and tropes emerge from writers. My pal Porl in Leeds uses classically Northern language. When I pointed out that regular reader Snowy was making Bryant & May Christmas cards, he sent a picture of his own Bryant & May bookmark with the caption; ‘Coming next, the Bryant & May wrought-iron silhouette trivet’. Northern phrasing often relies on unappropriate pairings. When Victoria Wood wrote about attracting someone’s attention in a canteen she wrote, ‘I tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork’. The line is funny because she sees fit to describe the type of fork in use.
Interesting writing is what ultimately decides whether a book stays on my shelves. Very few flatly written novels remain, no matter how ingenious their plots are. In this sense the ultimate enemy should be Dan Brown, whose prose is simply a series of simple bolted-together words used to describe an action at its most basic level. But this is an entirely legitimate tool in the arsenal, and requires talent to use correctly (and Mr Brown is certainly clever enough to have made more money that any of us). The moral? It all starts with the language.
The T-shirt, by the way, says ‘Talk Proper’ on the back.