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 Each’), you will earn a drenching from the other side: you’re a reactionary ignoramus whose ideas about language are a series of half-understood misconceptions copied unthinkingly from snobbish 18th- and 19th-century bossy-bootses.

The main reason such books get reviewed, then, is for the pleasure in identifying the mistakes they make and where they contradict their own advice, and in providing counterexamples to the ‘rules’ advanced by the author. I fully expect the usual drubbing.


So why do it? It’s a good question. Actually, questions are one of my beefs in all this – specifically, question marks. I cannot read without wincing an email that begins, ‘Hello, I hope you are well?’ My inner prescriptivist cavils at it. We all have an inner prescriptivist: even Steven Pinker, in his The Sense of Style, spends one or two hundred pages pouring scorn on grammar pedants before admitting that he loathes comma splices. I loathe comma splices, also known as run-on sentences, too. But my particular obsession is the question mark. ‘I hope you are well’ is a statement rather than a question, so it does not take a question mark. Likewise, the question mark with ‘surely’: ‘Surely not?’ If it’s a sure thing, there’s no question about it, right? Surely so. And then there’s the question mark for indirect questions. ‘She wonders if he is going to keep going on about question marks for the whole article?’ The uncertainty is hers, not that of the author of the sentence. Question marks for direct questions and direct questions only, please, people.

Yet even where I choose to plant my flag of resistance, the ground crumbles. In their huge The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Messrs Huddleston and Pullum discuss two instances in which direct questions don’t take question marks. They offer ‘Aren’t they lucky to have got away with it!’ and ‘Who cares what I think about it anyway!’ Here is the exclamation mark, if you like, pulling rank on its curly cousin to express a forceful rhetorical question: both of those are by way of exclamation rather than question; not asking for an answer. Is that grammatical? It’s an open question.

My favourite discovery in researching these matters, incidentally, has been the intervention of the actor Christopher Walken. ‘I’ve heard that the symbol we use to signify a question (?) is, in origin, an Egyptian hieroglyph that represents a cat as seen from behind,’ he writes in his foreword to the KISS Guide to Cat Care (2001). ‘I wonder if the Egyptians were expressing suspicion or an inquiring mind … or something else?’ Read that aloud in your best Christopher Walken voice for maximum effect. As far as I’ve been able to discover, there is no evidence whatever for his assertion.


So, as I say: why do it? The answer is that I wondered, like Tony Blair in the glory days of the late 1990s, whether there might not be a Third Way. Peacemaker that I am, I surveyed the blasted battlefield and wondered if we might be able to organise a linguistic equivalent of the Christmas football game in no-man’s-land. My notion was to take a rhetorical approach: to remember that language is an instrumental art concerned with reaching an audience.

Technically, prescriptivists are wrong about the way that language works and descriptivists, who study language as it is used rather than fulminate about how it should be used, are right. But we can turn the argument of the latter, a little, against them. If the important thing is to recognise the system as it is, rather than as it should be, we should also recognise that whether we like it or not a huge number of language users do hold these prejudices. It might not be a bad idea to pander to them a little if, as a civilian, your main aim is to find a receptive audience for your writing rather than win an academic argument about linguistics. What are called rules may better be called stylistic preferences or sociolinguistic norms. But it does to have a sense of them.

I once watched the great Geoff Pullum – co-author of the aforementioned Cambridge Grammar – giving a talk. In it, he lamented that the authors of The Economist’s style guide had counselled against splitting infinitives. They did so on the grounds not that there was anything wrong with doing so, but that lots of people think there is and it will annoy them if you do. ‘This is the “idiots win” position!’ Pullum exclaimed with real anguish. He is one of my heroes. But I found myself thinking: I’m with The Economist. Suffering fools gladly – given how many of them there are knocking about – is not a bad idea. Let the idiots win. A defining property of language – as descriptivists never tire of telling us – is that if enough people get something wrong often enough, it becomes right.

Jolly good, my publisher said on reading the completed manuscript. Your approach is: ‘There are no rules. Here are the rules.’ That will either please both sides or annoy everyone. I’m sure it’ll be the former. Tony Blair’s pretty popular these days, right?

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter