Getting The Words Wrong
‘What does he deserve for lighting the future on fire?’ asks a character in Game Of Thrones. The line bothered me. It’s not poke-you-in-the-eye bad grammar, just an awkward juxtaposition of words. It feels wrong. If I was pushed to define it, lighting something is the act of illuminating, setting is more aggressive while, say, ‘bored of’ instead of ‘bored with’ is just a change of composition that crops up now. Generally, Game of Thrones doesn’t fall into the ‘Yonder is the castle of my fadder’ category of historical dialogue – witness Diana Rigg’s delightfully sharp scenes in said series. But there’s a subtle change in language going on in the media at the moment.
This new awkwardness is far more noticeable on message boards, where language is routinely tortured into ugly shapes.Â Online comments are often written in haste and probably reflect spoken language quite accurately, but what appears to be happening is that habits of speech are passing into the written misuse of words. A fellow writer recently pointed out that ‘hone in on’ is appearing instead of ‘home in on’, along with ‘he can’t read nor write’.
Last month the Guardian used ‘hating on’ to mean hating, and perhaps we can date such linguistic strangulations back to the dreaded Alien box set describing it as a ‘quadrilogy’. I believe language is a living, malleable thing and should be stretched and altered, and casual malapropisms are easy to replace, but there must also be grace in language.
I’m now reading magazines that contain entire articles by writers incapable of expressing themselves with accuracy. One nameless writer in a national magazine seems to be filtering his sentences through Google Translate. I read his sentences trying to pinpoint actual mistakes and while I find none, the reading of his prose becomes a series of stumbles. Since when did a felicity with words cease to be a requirement of the job?
I have the same problem with US novels from the 19th century, finding Henry James, HP Lovecraft and Herman Melville all but unreadable for their use of parentheses and over-elaborate sentence structure. This may be because my mind is trained for English (although ‘Tristram Shandy’ still defeats me). It may simply be that they lie at the outer limit of my intellect.
I have a similar problem with many modern novels especially in the crime genre. The plots are engaging enough but it often feels as if the oven door was left open on the prose.Â Rereading GK Chesteron’s Father Brown stories this week reminded me of his glorious use of language (and his preposterous plots). Crime novels can be ameliorated by the joyful use of words, but there’s something about the genre that equates believability with ponderousness, and dourness with dullness. To which I say once again, Edmund Crispin. He’ll be cropping up shortly in our regular Invisible Ink feature.