Friday 4 July 2008

My language obsession

Nearly every morning I pick up a copy of the Metro on my way to work. My attention to the news depends on whether I have a) read the Lite the night before, b) watched breakfast TV or c) read an internet news site. One thing that I always enjoy reading is the letters page.

Recently there has been a spate of letters discussing language. The 'conversation' started with a letter questioning the use (on a road sign) of "discontinuous hard shoulder" and what this might indicate. I think this is perfectly obvious and best explained by 'intermittent' (assuming that the correspondent knows that word!). Another correspondent replied to the letter, his comments containing the incorrect use of the word disseminate. Cue more letters.

The problem here is one which many might point to as endemic to this country (or maybe to all English speaking countries). As Henry Higgins put it in 'My Fair Lady', "Whilst others are instructed in their native language, English people aren't".

At school I studied handwriting, grammar and spelling. I realise that my education is unusual in this respect. We took handwriting classes with our redoubtable headmistress. Handwriting that must be done in pen and ink, the ink refilled from the bottle (no cartridges!). My two clearest memories of these lessons are one of my classmates raising their hand to observe "My pen has run out" to which our teacher replied "You had better go after it and catch it then" and her other oft repeated observation "Nice is a nice word".

Spelling was studied every week, and tested. Woe betide anyone who failed their spelling test. It is therefore even more shameful that my spelling is so lamentable!

Grammar was studied in the same manner as I would later study French, Latin and German. When years later my French teacher was to admonish us as to the use of 'split infinitives' I was one of the few people in the class who did not need the demonstration of the famous Star Trek introduction correctly phrased "To go boldly".

This lack of education has revealed itself to me lately in the written English of some of my younger colleagues. Capital letters and punctuation are used as seasoning in a sentence without any apparent understanding of meaning or significance. As for spelling, let us not even think about the deficiencies in that area!

Back to the correspondent in the Metro and his incorrect use of the word disseminate. The use of poly-syllabic words does usually indicated education, or at least scholarship. Be certain you are using the right word before you speak/write though, as incorrect use reveals the exact converse. That, or the ownership of a word of the day calendar!