Diary: To Be or To Not Be by Sam Leith

Sam Leith

Diary: To Be or To Not Be


Only a maniac would want to write a book about language and usage. It is the equivalent of poking your head quite deliberately into a hole in the ground containing a huge wasps’ nest. So quite why I gave in to my publisher and wrote Write to the Point, I can’t exactly say. The problem is, as my old friend Henry Hitchings put it in his own book on the subject, ‘the language wars’ are still going strong.

If you set about saying that it doesn’t matter a toss whether infinitives are split or modifiers dangle, you risk being buried under a mountain of letters denouncing you as barbaric, illiterate and one of those idiots whose trendy views are responsible for the decline of our education system, the coarsening of the language and the loss of the Empire. I once received an angry letter, handwritten on paper and posted with a first-class stamp, because I had used ‘snuck’ as the past tense of ‘to sneak’.

If you thunder in, on the other hand, with old-fashioned views on the use of the subjunctive, the correct meanings of the words ‘decimate’ and ‘enormity’, or the monstrous wrongness of the so-called ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (‘Tangerine’s 50p

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