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Achingly unacceptable: the bad language that bugs me



As a professional linguist I try to embrace changes to modern English, but there are a few illiterate horrors I just can't abide


The Guardian April 19, 2015




'The eighth letter of the alphabet is pronounced "aitch". Look it up in a dictionary if you don't believe me.' Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA

A great linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, once wrote: “Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.” That truth anyone who thinks about language must immediately recognise.

Professional linguists regard such change as neutral, an inherent fact of language. Who today speaks the BBC English of yesteryear, far less the English of Dickens or Jane Austen? But many language users – and we are all language users – give vent to vehement frustration over the constant changes taking place. One has only to read the letters in newspapers, or hear irate callers-in to radio programmes, to understand that fact: “‘Going forward’ sets my teeth on edge”; “What kind of word is ‘gotten’? It makes me shudder,” and so on.

While editing Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the book that many writers and editors turn to as the correct usage bible, I had de Saussure’s maxim constantly in mind. If I pull my linguist’s hat firmly down over my ears, it enables me to observe language change objectively. But if I forget that headgear, or, as some might allege, put on my tinfoil hat, certain things, if they do not exactly make my blood boil, heat it to a moderate simmer. Here, in no particular order, are a few:

to wed: Who else but journalists would use this ridiculous, archaic word? Imagine a friend telling you, “Hey, I’ve got some great news! Zoe and I are to wed next week.” You would bite your lip, while wondering if they had swallowed the Hello! style guide. The word was almost bearable when it skulked in the red tops; in a serious newspaper (the Guardian, too, is guilty), it is irretrievably naff.

haitch: The eighth letter of the alphabet is pronounced “aitch”. Look it up in a dictionary if you don’t believe me. I challenge you to find an “h” sound in the pronunciation shown there. People born from the 1980s onwards apparently favour this pronunciation; youth is no excuse for illiteracy.

achingly: Here’s another piece of journalistic flimflam, eg “They consistently produce achingly hip music.” Oh, for heaven’s sake, grow up! It isn’t “achingly” anything, you pretentious scribbler. You’re just trying to show how “edgy” (there’s another one) you are.

in terms of: This hook on which many a sentence dangles, gasping for life, is not exactly new, but it is still as irritating and meaningless as ever. A politico says: “We have made great progress in terms of the deficit.” No, we have not.

to leverage, leverage (noun): Business speak has its place, and that place is in business. When TV’s Mr Selfridge intones dramatically, “I don’t want you using my daughter as leverage,” he might sound businesslike; he also shows that the scriptwriter has cloth ears.

unacceptable: Such a feeble, euphemistic little word, but so often trotted out. Little Tommy’s behaviour is “unacceptable”, the kindergarten warns us. What does that mean? Is he behaving like an egocentric monster and, if we don’t do something, will develop into a fully fledged psychopath? Or has he merely pulled Miranda’s hair? A multitude of sins are covered, but never specified, because we are too kind-hearted, too polite and ultimately, too soft.

to address: People in the business of not really meaning what they say love this word for its soothing vagueness. When they undertake to “address the issue of … ” you can be sure that nothing much will happen, and that said issue will speedily be kicked into the long grass. When someone says, “But the government should consider how it could address public concerns,” you can be sure that some kind of perfunctory “listening exercise” will be trumpeted, and then said concerns will be blithely ignored.

a criteria: “Such a criteria is unscientific and misleading.” On reading that my reaction is: “Such a sentence is illiterate and misshapen.” The word is criterion in the singular, and criteria in the plural. Punto e basta!

clamber: eg “Eager crowds clambered to catch a glimpse of the newly elected … ” Unless they turned into Spiderman and shimmied up lamp posts, they did no such thing. What they did was to noisily express (yes, it’s fine to split an infinitive) their eagerness to “catch a glimpse”. In other words, they clamoured.

reach out: Last, and very definitely not least, this absurdly gushing and pseudo-empathetic American metaphor needs no comment. I am sure readers will happily supply their own.

PS: But just as much as these, I detest it when Word’s schoolmistressy grammar checker pedantically and anachronistically warns me that I am ending a sentence with a preposition. I know, you foolish software, and I’m sticking to my guns. That’s how English works.

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