English, as she is herd -


I blame the Beeb.  And yes, there are worse offenders – Sky News, ITV, Four, Five, politicians, bureaucrats, executives, business schools, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. But, Oh Auntie! It really is up to you to set an example. No one expects you to keep wearing the twinset, pearls and horsey headscarf.  Something classic and tasteful from M&S or John Lewis would be perfectly acceptable, linguistically speaking.  Or even a mini skirt or skinny jeans from Top Shop for Radio 1 listeners – but a shell suit and faux Burberry and all that bling! It’s just not on.

New expressions and new influences keep the language alive. Shakespeare misused grammar to great effect and some current expressions add wonderfully to its richness. But that’s not what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is laziness, sloppiness and the need to rush through everything at the behest of the programme schedulers – the modern equivalent of the hounds of hell. The broadcast media is always in such a hurry, trying to fit too much into too short a time. You only need to listen to the poor breathless weather people – trying to cram their spits and spots into the 15 seconds allotted to them.  Hence the fashion for turning verbs and adjectives into nouns and vice versa.  You do not ‘task’ someone to do something. ‘Task’ is noun, not a verb. And ‘conference’ is a noun, not please, oh please not a verb as in ‘lets conference.’ Add all this to the herd mentality and you end up with the sort of language that has me thinking fondly of the National Rifle Association.

Misuse of language is like a rash – it spreads. It only takes one politician to say ‘going forward’ and next thing you have is an epidemic. Before you know it expressions such as ‘in the future’, ‘looking ahead’ and even ‘from now on’ have become like Monty Python’s parrot – deceased, they are no more. ‘Going forward’ isn’t the only example, indeed there are so many that I could fill in a thousand posts, and given time, I probably will.

When did you last hear a newsreader, politician or businessman say that something was going to happen ‘before’ the meeting, the summit, the statement? Bet you can’t remember. ‘Before’ has vanished into outer darkness. Nowadays it’s all ‘ahead of this’ and ‘ahead of that’. Happily, I’m not alone. Lucy Kellaway has written a great article on the subject And there’s a bunch of people so annoyed at the way the expression has crept into business in general and their organisation in particular that they tracked its use in their meetings.

Not everyone cares about the way language is used.   And of course, expressions that drive me nuts don’t bother others and vice versa. Nor am I suggesting that we follow rules blindly. I’m all for embracing new words, new forms and new uses. Provided they make sense.  Provided you know what you’re doing.  As long as there’s a positive result – more clarity, more nuances, more invention.  What I can’t stand is sloppiness and the herd mentality.  We are not sheep though I’m of the opinion that some among us are not as intelligent. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought.  And sloppy thought leads to all sorts of bad things. So if we can’t look to Auntie Beeb to set an example, then we might as well pack up our bags, put out the lights and learn to speak Esperanto.



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4 Responses to English, as she is herd -

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    You wrote that we “might as well pack up our bags, put out the lights and learn to speak Esperanto.” Please don’t see Esperanto as linked to despair or as a rival to English. Esperanto has a role to play. Indeed I think we’ll hear much more about it next year on its 125th anniversary.

    Sometimes I translate obscure or jargon-ridden English phrases into Esperanto. If I can’t do it, then the original has no clear meaning.

  2. Sorry! Didn’t mean to tread on anyone’s toes.

  3. Phil Thane says:

    Politicians are the worst. Years ago my attention was grabbed by a politician announcing that his latest action would be ‘robust’. Good, I thought, he’s taking it seriously. Soon every politician was using it. Now every investigation, discussion policy and procedure is ‘robust’. But nothing has improved.

    Then a new minister of defence declared his ministry ‘Not fit for purpose’. It had a brusque military feel, and it made an important point. Suddenly though we had social services departments, schools, hospitals and a tax system ‘not fit for purpose’. That particular usage has declined, though of course the government departments are still not very good.

    Now we have ‘hard working families’. Every policy or proposal is examined for its effect on these paragons. Politicians on the right contrast them with irresponsible welfare claimants, those on the left with capitalist excess. It’s a phrase neither side can afford to stop using.

  4. Thanks for your comment Phil. Yes, all those expressions drive me mad and yes, I agree with you, they started off as measured and appropriate comments for a specific purpose. And then all the lazy ones jumped on the bandwagon. I must say that ‘hard working families’ is one that drives me screaming into the shed to find a hatchet. As if the only people who are hardworking are families. Forget single people, widows, widowers etc. Grrrr! I’m always very proud of the fact that my countrymen and women go to some lengths to keep their language interesting. However, I haven’t heard their radio recently or watched any TV, so maybe they too have fallen from grace.

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