On 30 June, the Queen’s English Society (QES) downed its shutters. For 40 years it championed the cause of proper English. The assumption was that the royal use of language should be the model for all good writing and speech. The notion of prestige associated with the way the aristocracy used English has given rise to an enduring debate on the subject between prescriptive and laissez-faire grammarians. QES admitted to being prescriptive, committed to protecting the language from declining standards. The society, however, did not seem to enjoy general support. Only 22 people attended its annual meeting and no one offered to take up any official role. The society wanted English to be monitored and regulated by a body such as the Academie Francaise. This body was to be called the Academy of Contemporary English. In September 2010, the Academy was separated from QES, but in 2012 the two merged again. QES also announced the release of the final issue of its journal, Quest.
“QES RIP”: that was one of the headlines that announced the demise of the society. There were many critics who wrote obituary notes on QES. They did not take kindly to the role that the society intended to play, namely to take control of the English language. The general complaint was that the society tried to preserve old rules of grammar, which really had no validity today.
The language has changed, and continues to change. Prescriptive grammarians are accused of trying to block change by retaining some of the antediluvian rules. Some of the rules are violated even by writers who champion them. Here are some of the more widely discussed rules from old grammar that have been put in the dock.
Rule 1. The arch offender among the words is the simple preposition “like”. There was a furore of protest when a cigarette company displayed “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” on its hoardings. This jingle took the Winston brand to the top spot in sales. At the same time, the advertisement led to a long debate. The grammar was considered wrong. “Like” and “as” are not interchangeable. The right usage should have been: “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.” The New Yorker called it an obnoxious and ubiquitous couplet.
Rule 2. A preposition, by its name, has to be placed “pre” or before other elements. It should never be at the end of a sentence. The rule irked many people, and Churchill silenced the rule makers with his knock-out repartee referring to “the arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
Rule 3. How rules can warp good sense is shown by a situation that arose in the showrooms of British supermarket chain, Tesco. The checkout counter had the words “10 items or less.” Grammarians objected to the phrase, saying that when you are referring to countable things, “fewer” should be used, and not “less”. So, Tesco changed over to “up to 10 items.” Still, there were people who asked whether “up to 10 items” would not fall short of 10.
Rule 4. Another contentious issue is the split infinitive. When your leave letter says: “I request you to kindly grant me leave of absence,” you are splitting an infinitive. The rule says that you cannot place any word between the verb marker “to”, and the verb itself. But the rule no longer has any clout. The disputed usage has now got the sanction of a famous phrase in Star Trek: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
What detractors of prescriptivism object to is the attempt by individuals to impose artificial and arbitrary rules on usage. A rule should be seen as a codification of existing practice. Grammarians point out that prescriptivists create such controversies by trying to fit English structure on to a Procrustean bed of Latin grammar. The history of English shows that language changes under the influence of good writers and speakers, not of academies of the French model.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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