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Language of Fools February 19, 2010

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.

I suppose it’s axiomatic that much of my scribbling is prompted by Radio 4 and I’m afraid here we go again. It’s also yet more moaning about the parlous state of the English language, albeit with knobs on, but when yet another politician indulges in some lazily verbal disfigurement I want to scream. Or at least blog. This time it was Teresa May  uttering “instinctual” instead of “instinctive” on a recent Today programme,  a grammatical gaffe that happened to be broadcast on the same day as University College London published research concluding that 40% of students “viewed no more than three pages from the thousands available online when researching a topic”.

This was in the context of claims that 12 to 18 year-olds are losing the ability to study properly because “constant internet use is ‘rewiring’ their brains” and “reducing youngsters’ capacities to read and write at length because their minds are being remoulded to function differently.”

UCL’s Prof. David Nicholas noted that “people seemed to be skipping over the virtual landscape… hopping from sites, looking at one or two pages, going onto another site, looking at one or two pages then going on. Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long.”

In response to the report and specifically citing Facebook’s feedback loops, social psychologist Dr Aleksi Krotoski added that “it seems for good or for ill… there is now empirical evidence that information overload and associative thinking may be reshaping how (youngsters) think.” Cambridge University’s Dr David Runciman added that, “The generation of students I teach see books as peripheral.”

May’s adulteration and the UCL report are, if not directly connected (okay, they’re probably not), then symptomatic of a mental disfunction which I believe merits further debate. I’ve previously observed that text messaging and e-mails have spawned a shorthand which encourages an entire generation of impressionable young minds to adopt spellings not to be found in any dictionary and completely abandon grammar as we know it. As Krotoski wonders, is this a good thing or bad thing? Well there are many, including those barmy proponents of phonetics as an educational methodology who would claim the former. But – quelle surprise – I’m not one of them.

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES      My doubts are confirmed by recent data on educational standards: 20% of our adults cannot read to a level expected of an 11 year-old (presumably one who isn’t welded to his mobile phone) and almost a third can’t add up two three-figure numbers. Moreover nearly half the students who’ll sit their GCSEs this year won’t even get a Grade C in English or Maths… and that’s just those who’ll actually take them.

As if to reinforce this, I recently did some sub-editing work on copy written by allegedly professional journalists which was riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors and needless, lazy repetitions, this made even the more galling since they were salaried staff, and I am of course scratching a living as a freelancer in a declining industry. In devil’s advocate mode, this begs a perhaps interesting question: rather than wringing our hands about this, should we be looking at new types of media that completely abandon traditional spelling, syntax and linguistic architecture? Should we be producing magazines that have no more than a few hundred words in them, corralled into grunting gobbets surrounded by the sort of flashy images thrown up momentarily on our iPhones? Er, well perhaps not because we indeed used to have them, they were called adult comics and they’re now the endangered preserve of straggly haired men in anoraks.

In which case should existing newspapers and magazines simply ape the same techniques and to hell with alienating their aging core readership who were, generally speaking, educated before the internet era? Well the failure of London Lite and The London Paper, albeit for reasons more to do with advertising income, would suggest not… although stories in even the so-called broadsheets are, as commented here before, getting shorter and shorter and more and more obsessed with slebs and puffery at the expense of serious reportage and analysis.

In the meantime the internet marches on and during the course of scribbling this blog ­– itself of course a product of the internet – I’ve made use of it to check a fact or two which otherwise would’ve involved lengthy phone calls. Indeed I am currently working on a project that will, should it get financed, rely entirely on the web for its income, so far be it for me to adopt the role of a digital King Canute. But I am nevertheless left with, as Teresa May might say, an instinctual fear that we are developing into a nation of ill-educated Neanderthals, the cost of which in terms of reduced productivity, unemployment, mental health, low-level crime and maybe even a collective self-loathing no-one has bothered to consider.

AND FINALLY…        On a (slightly) lighter note, my recent rant on the smoking ban excited far more reaction than anything previously scrawled, so much so that I rather waspishly reprised it at our latest salon where it drew perhaps a predictably unsympathetic response, some of it from those claiming that since its inception they now visited pubs more frequently… presumably to challenge their livers and contribute more revenue to the exchequer which could then be used by an ever-expanding NHS to treat alcohol related diseases?

Gamma Coupe + MW before the blow-out


Meanwhile a couple of correspondents actually, if surprisingly enquired as to the current health of my Lancia which I referred to obliquely in that same blog so I can happily announce that its re-built, two-into-one engine is now in situ and running sweeter than ever, albeit at a wincingly wallet-depleting cost. The drive home from Messrs. Tanc Barratt did however re-acquaint me with the grumbling noise of what is almost certainly a shagged-out wheelbearing, despite previous inspections failing to determine exactly which one(s) as they are so damn huge that they don’t betray any  movement when the wheels are jacked up. And of course replacements are virtually unobtainable and thus fiendishly expensive… or fndshly expnsve… or way 2 big 4 me, innit.

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1. David Cobbold - February 19, 2010

Good on you Mark. Keep on ranting. It would be interesting to know if there are some of your millions of readers under the age of, say, 40, who think as we do about the state of language (in the sense of syntax and spelling), both written and spoken. It will not be reassuring to you to know that things are apparently just as bad on this south side of the Channel. Molière, qui ça ?

markswill - February 21, 2010

David, I think that my quotations from academics far better qualified than I to pontificate on such matters suggest that the current and certainly the next generation of students won’t give a rat’s arse about the state of the language. As for the couple of hundred who regularly wince their way through my digital rants, well I doubt in any of them are under 50 so I remain comfy in the prejudice that they can all reed and rite propper, like.

2. OldHack - February 19, 2010

Good luck with that project that “should it get financed it will rely entirely on the web for its income.” I trust you won’t be solely relying on it for your future existence.
But whatever it is I am sure it will, as they say, b gr8 innit!

markswill - February 21, 2010

I’m happy to report that it’s income and its existences are, or rather will be, mutually exclusive.

3. Neil Murray - February 19, 2010

Can only agree with this; all of it. It’s depressing to interview candidates for reporting jobs who simply cannot write coherent perfect English prose. And as the title I steward is aimed at a global readership, many of whom do not have English as a first language.

We even had a job application written partially in text-speak, sorry, txt-spk, if you can believe this. Honest.

We set every applicant we call to interview a simple, but quite nasty, test that involved correction of a few hundred words of unpunctuated gobbledegook. It’s interesting to see that the applicants who complete this best are frequently those who have Urdu, Hindi or some other immigrant language as their mother tongue.

Look at some of the postings on the journalism.co.uk forum, from would-be hacks asking plaintively how they can break into this dodgy milieu (I refuse to use the word ‘profession’). It’s depressing.

4. Hugh Colvin - February 19, 2010

Amongst others I blame the weather forecasters for the destruction of the English Language. Thus the old Professor in Teach Yourself Metereology comes across with that time-honoured pseudo-objective device – the gerundive: “The tapping of barometers is to be deprecated”. In the modern era Suzanne Charlton refers to “the dawn-time period ” and then there’s that phrase that recurs almost daily on the Met Office site, “there is a 40% confidence of a severe weather event ….”. 40% anxiety at the Weather Centre …. wha… ?
Trained as scientists but not as public speakers they take refuge in a written script for their brief autocued moment in the limelight. Out of insecurity they use classical polysyllables, instead of funky anglo-saxon; they mistake the written language of Academe for the everyday and the spoken, and imagine that long words will add weight to their message. Or should I say “gravitas”. Its all part of the zeitgeist, I think, whatever it is.
If they want to use classical language they should read – and if – having failed to get more than an intellectual snack off the internet – you too desire something more filling, I recommend Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; effortlessly graceful.

5. WTK - February 19, 2010

It’s so easy being aYank. We dispensed with proper English centuries ago, but have worked mightily on dialects. Don’tcha know? I am so happy the Lancia is motoring again. I notice that the paint scheme matches your eyes.

I often wonder about the upheaval the printing press caused when the illiterate learned to read and information became available to the masses. Gut-punched the Catholic church for starters. Y’all ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

markswill - February 21, 2010

I fear your write: we certainly aint seen nuffink yet when it comes to the shit-storm that’ll prevail against literary political correction.

6. Pete - February 19, 2010

To the barricades…! I agree totally, Mark. I religiously spell out emails and text messages, and punctuate them, only to get replies along the lines of “OK c u” or “Wen do u thnk the bus will ariv.” Enough to make you sling your mobile into a lake, especially when one’s gone to the trouble of mastering predictive text – even that is too much of an effort for our beloved yoof it seems.

The trickle down effect of this is being felt more now as those who have grown up with messaging as an integral part of their lives reach maturity and the jobs market. One of the main culprits that encourages this is the chatroom and instant messaging – MSN etc. It is more free flowing than email and mobile SMS and the words are exposed to a wider audience. Sentence construction is regarded as uncool and geeky so a whole unmoderated culture of (un)written English is being fostered at an alarming rate. It doesn’t, in my experience, matter if you mock or berate the kid in an attempt to shame them into some sort of coherent language – the remonstration is met with a shrug and “Dad, I’m in the middle of a chat, it doesn’t matter, they know what i mean…”

Trouble is, it’s true. They do. Maybe it’s a sign of an evolving higher expression and intelligence that dispenses with the inconvenience of grammar for a swifter, more streamlined and distilled language? No, I’m not convinced either. The beauty of English in particular is the precision that can be achieved through the choice of words and phrases. The loss of vocabulary is the really alarming trend that I see and the reduction of emotions and expression to a few stock buzz words is depressing.

Oh well, whatever…

7. colin higgins - February 20, 2010

Meh. I blame the Teddy Boys. Or is it the Lindy Hoppers? English has been going down the pan since Elizabethan times, today we have fifty ways of saying innit.
OTOH (see what I did there?) my kids were born with the inate skill to program a computer (my inner Meldrew wants to say programme and third programme at that) whereas I’d still be reading about “Reading about PC for Halfwits”, or some other Meccano No 0 construction set for the C21st challenged.

Pete - February 21, 2010

Sounds like you are wrestling with the twin arts of computer programming and usage. IMHO (oh, yes) few kids are born with innate programming skills (obviously I don’t know yours) and their advantage is in what they don’t have, which is a fear of computers and their use. Consequently they will play with them and share dodges and cheats amongst themselves in a way that many adults are wary of doing. They can of course afford to do this because a) they have the time and b) if they break it someone else, who probably paid for it in the first place, will pay to have it mended.

With further play, and having observed and shared repair stories, many then become expert beyond the abilities of their parents who fear the delicate and expensive machine in their midst even more. The language of computer use is not that difficult, although programming (a very different thing) is, and in many ways I find is related to the Meccano nuts and bolts approach. Find the right spanner, literally or metaphorically, and you can equal most kids at the PC or Mac.

8. Paul N. Blez - February 20, 2010

A few comments. As they come to mind.

Stones and Glass houses dept. MW wrote “I’d afraid” when he obviously meant “I’m afraid”. But we all knew what he meant so does it matter? Well, yes and no! Then Mr Colvin wrote “Teach Yourself Metereology” when he obviously meant Meteorology in a rant in favour of good old Anglo Saxon words. Yup, I can see why you’re not happy with them bleedin’ long Latin-derived multi-syllable words Colin. 😉

Do I despair of the illiteracy of today’s yoof? Yes I do. When people mis-use words, whether written or spoken, and say it doesn’t matter because ‘Well they know what I mean’. I say, “They might do this time, but next time there might be some ambiguity”.
We have different words for “teach” and “learn” because they mean different things. Just as “infer” does not mean the same as “imply”. Unfortunately, half the bloody commentators on TV think that “infer” is a posh word for imply……

On the other hand, life is far too short to write out perfect mobile phone text. That is an activity for Grumpy Old Men with far too much time on their hands IMHO. Using txt spk in emails is fine in some circs, and totally inappropriate in others. Surely that is one of the chief problems of today’s yoof – that they can’t tell the difference between those two situations. Like turning up at a black tie dinner in a pair of Speedos…….

Ironically, the advent of advanced predictive text has actually reduced the use of such abbreviations. It’s also a source of daily irritation to me that my new Samsung mobile phone, while far better than my previous Sony Ericsson in most respects, is handicapped with far inferior predictive text, to the point where I hardly use it any more.

As for innumeracy, let he who has done the Dispatches ‘Kids Don’t Count’ numeracy test and scored 100% cast the first stone……..

Finally, I find it faintly ironic that by far the most useful thing I learnt while doing a Master of Science in Environmental Planning and Design, was the ability to touch type. I did this using an ancient ‘teach yourself typing book’ backed up by a couple of lessons at a local adult education class…….., neither of which had any connection with Aston University, where I did the MSc!

markswill - February 21, 2010

I am ever grateful to the likes of PNB for their unfailing ability to correct my gaffes, grammatical and spelling even if they do expose the fallibilities that I excoriate in others. But predictive text? Spawn of the devil whichever way you cut it.

The numeracy test Paul mentions I shall politely sidestep: O-level maths was as far as I got and I have no need for further humiliation.

9. jan buxton - February 20, 2010

The strange thing about text-speke is that you have to go out of your way not to use predictive text – in other words it is a positive choice for yoofs, or would-be-yoofs, to be different from their parents and for the dumber breed of parent to think they can identify with their kids by such behaviour; it isn’t necessarily quicker.
However, poor literacy standards are not new. As someone who has recently moved north I have found that my team (20 folk mostly in the 30-50 age range and the majority with degrees from universities that used to be polytechnics) have no idea about punctuation. Please could someone in the Marches send a supply of question marks, apostrophes and capital letters as we dont seem to have any, none of the councils staff use them so i dont where theyve gone – ive noticed that the only exception is the possessive version of “it’s” which is where some apostrophes are squandered. We have old fashioned typists, not very old fashioned since they use Microsoft Word on PCs, but the principle (or principal, as my team persists with) is the same; we are not allowed to send letters ourselves, we have to write them for the typists to type, even if that means emailing them to the typists who probably print them out and type them in again. I went to see the head of the typists who agreed that the best way to ensure the survival of her team was to treat my team’s letters as drafts which her mostly middle-aged typists would correct, format and print for the originator to sign and stuff in an envelope. The only advantage of this appears to be that at least her staff are required to keep the spell-checker turned on; it does not result in sentences having verbs, for instance, nor “it’s” instead of “its”, etc. but does help us reach the conclusion that it is falling standards within society that is the issue here not merely illiteracy in current school-leavers.

Thanks for including the picture of the Gamma; shame someone was standing in the way 😉

Jan Buxton

markswill - February 21, 2010

Jan’s last point is well taken, but surely the latter causes the former? I’m also unsure if she considers sentences without verbs a Good or a Bad Thing? Mine are of course always chock-full of them.

As for punctuation, well I fear the Marches are not awash with apostrophes, capital letters etc. and only last week I gently pointed out to a university educated, 50-something vegetarian ecologist friend who compiles a monthly column chastising the rest of us for wearing leather shoes and using electricity that she might usefully apply a few possessive apostrophes hither and yon, only for her to reply – and she wasn’t being ironic – whats an apostrophe?

Where will it end?

And sorry to clutter up the pic of the Gamma, but sometimes one’s vanity gets in the way of aesthetic purity.

10. Paul N. Blez - February 21, 2010

MW: “I doubt in any of them are under 50”
I think you’ll find that’s “I doubt any of them IS under 50”
(for the pedants amongst us).
But who saw Dr Alex Krotolski’s prog on the Beeb last nite?
I fort it woz pretty good. Fascinating stuff about how der yoofs’ brains work differently thru being brort up wiv the internet etc.

However, I was rather annoyed by her half-explanation of the origins of the expression of ‘In the Loop’. She started to explain about Ack Ack guns and German bombers attacking Blighty in the Blitz and then failed to explain:
1/ Exactly what the problem was in hitting them, despite being able to see their approach on radar
2/ How they solved the problem thanks to the American scientist she mentioned but whose name now escapes me.
Did anyone understand either of the above?!
I found that particularly section of the prog completely half-arsed.
Still well worth watching via the BBC iplayer though
PS I am particularly interested because my dear departed Mum worked on radar in the war and actually ended up teaching it to Polish exiles.

11. jan buxton - February 21, 2010

PNP asks whether correct language matters as long as we know what was meant. The trouble is that inaccurate language leads to ambiguity and then we cannot rely on my understanding of a sentence being the same as yours. I cannot imagine a situation where “it’s” or “its” would be critical but there are plenty of instances which I come across at work where it can change the meaning – quite often misspelling “not” as “now” reverses the intension.

As the author of a sloppily constructed sentence you know what you mean and are less able to spot a possible alternative interpretation than someone approaching it without that preconception. A Radio 4 example that springs to mind: “on this afternoon’s programme we have a Leeds prostitute and MP, Claire Short” and sometimes even grammatically correct sentences need revision, such as “Youths raided a liquor store in Soweto and when police arrived they were stoned.”

jan buxton - February 21, 2010

… and yes, I meant intention not intension

12. Ian H - February 22, 2010

I too have a dislike for the further expansion of MBA speak in to the output of R4. I also get angry when I spot incorrect grammar, not because I am a grammar nazi but more because the education system chose my time at school as the occasion to start experimenting with how it taught young people literacy. I have paid the price for this since, it has cost me dear. Although all of the responsibility can not be shouldered by the educationalists as I contributed to my own downfall by the occasional truant session so that I could ride my James 150 cadet around the local waste ground.
Poor old Neil Murray, occasional poster of this parish, has over the years torn his hair out in response to some of the gaffes in pieces I have submitted. No doubt the response was similar with some of the items I eventually had published in MCI and M/C Enthusiast.
Yes correct language does matter, the expansive vocabulary is a requirement of enlightened reading, thats why most of us bought Bike in the early days. It’s still important now and probably why few magazines or websites have the cultural impact that Bike did.

13. Lobo de Mar - February 23, 2010

Talk of “slebs” in your “blog” Mark? Whatever are you doing to this beautiful language? Quelle horreur! (And on the subject of punctuation: “re-built” and “re-acquaint”?) LMAO!

markswill - February 23, 2010

Listen up bro’, I am not above abject hypocrisy as I am, after all, a journalist. As for the spellings, well hyphens are often optional where I’m coming from.

14. Polly - February 26, 2010

“people seemed to be skipping over the virtual landscape… hopping from sites, looking at one or two pages, going onto another site, looking at one or two pages then going on. Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long.”
Recently, I’ve been trying to use aspects of IT with which I am not familiar. Consequently, I have been searching the internet for information on how to use the IT and I have noticed that people don’t know how to write concise and meaningful explanations on techinical subjects. I end up mentally shouting “I JUST WANT A SIMPLE ANSWER NOT ALL THIS TRIPE!”

” spellings not to be found in any dictionary and completely abandon grammar ”
In my job, I take customer requirements and deliver an IT solution. I deliver with customers from all over the world and its difficult enough when they all use their own brand of English. Although I know that a language is a like living object and it changes, we need to maintain the definitions otherwise we will not be able to communicate effectively.

15. Åsa Sköld - February 28, 2010

fyi txt spk is gr8 im rofl lol lol lol cu l8r xxx

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