One aspect of English I no longer worry about is grammar. In recent years I’ve had sufficient inoculation. But not everyone feels comfortable. When I signed up to Facebook my cousin in California wrote this to my sister: ‘If he accepts my friend request I fear that I’m going to have to improve my spelling and grammar.’ The fear was baseless. But it led me to wonder about a lingering anxiety that many native English speakers feel about the grammar of their own language.
I often see word worry in adult students. They may be expert in their respective fields but they enrol in my classes because they’re anxious about using English. They worry about underlying causes for their stalled career. Or they’re seeking answers to this mystery of seeming inarticulacy. Or they want to remove an intangible obstacle to their job prospects or to gain the respect of friends and colleagues. Some blame interrupted schooling. Others point to their non-English speaking background. And more than a few blame an education system that has taught them the rudiments of French, German or even Latin grammar, but not English: that bastard linguistic offspring.
As we set about collective inoculation, I warn students and novice writers against placing faith in computer grammar-checkers: an even less reliable tool than spell-checker. Though everyone would be better off trusting their innate sense of language logic, not all readers and writers of English have the confidence. If students doubt their capacity for self-reliance, I encourage them to acquire a mentor or dependable friend. And for the more resourceful, I recommend expert opinion to be found in the pages of respected language authorities such as H W Fowler, Robert Burchfield or the Chicago Manual of Style.
Most of all, I’d like to see us loosening up about grammar. Outside the demands of academic or literary writing, the majority of writers don’t need that level of specialised awareness. And ninety-nine percent of readers won’t notice a few bent or broken rules.
I began that last sentence with a conjunction. So I’ll do it again. I can even end this one with a preposition if I want to. Big deal. If required, I can force myself to rudely split an infinitive. That one still discomforts me, like folding my arms the opposite way from usual, but there’s no moral dimension to the act: no right or wrong. The grammar police—sorry, the prescriptivists—have no power to intervene when anyone breaches this so-called ‘rule,’ which is barely even a guideline today. A handful of traditionalists might shudder but the rest of the population won’t even notice. Of those who do, most won’t care about flouting such arbitrary and outmoded linguistic laws. So why the lingering worry among members of our English-speaking population?
Anyone who has studied a foreign language in class usually learns the rules of grammar in a structured and systematic way. Those who have studied English as a second language possess this advantage over native speakers. With knowledge of another tongue, the newcomer can observe our chaotic and contradictory language for what it is: a magnificent, frustrating, inconsistent, easy-difficult mess. Fearing grammar isn’t the real anxiety: that’s only a symptom. I think it’s a childhood fear of ridicule that troubles the anxious writer. Nobody wants to make some blunder in front of their ten thousand contacts across a global social network. Some people have never entirely got over the trauma of bringing the wrong coloured lunchbox to school, or the ignominy of having an odd name, or humiliation in class for giving the answer that everyone else knew was incorrect.
Grammar anxiety reflects a deeper concern. We know that to make a grammatical mistake, like a mispronunciation, is as human as forgetting somebody’s name. Even the smartest kid in class knows how that feels. But sometimes the smarter a kid is, the more conscious he or she may be to maintain a standard of excellence. Those who worry most about some little language slip may be the very people who feel they have most to lose. Perhaps it’s only a tiny error but how vulnerable is the speaker?
I believe inoculation against grammar worry is best achieved by learning the rules and then choosing which ones to conform to and which ones to disregard—at the writer’s pleasure. Pedants may quibble but I believe grammar angst is misplaced. Written rules change over time, like pronunciation. Yesterday’s solecism is today in common use or else it’s obsolete.
So let’s worry about important things instead.
In former British colonies (e.g. South Africa, India, New Zealand and Australia) no one writes someone. We may write to another. We may write about or for them. Unlike our American-English contemporaries, those of us continuing to speak and write in the British tradition have chosen to retain our prepositions. We like our conjunctions too. That’s a hundred and one Dalmatians, also one thousand and one Arabian nights. But sometimes the difference between the two major streams of English is like the difference between a rabbit and a hare. While a nineteenth-century Englishman might still have referred to one-and-twenty pence (a tradition retained in the ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds’ nursery rhyme), his American contemporary had already rationalised and simplified the language. Perhaps one day all English speakers will drop the ‘u’ in harbour and labour, as we did for ‘doctour’ and ‘governour’. We might even adopt that inverted American date convention, whereby 11th September 2001 becomes 9-11-2001. But these are just cosmetic differences.
It’s not so easy to translate idiom.
These nuggets of almost-metaphor retain peculiarities of cultural baggage. Trying to explain the idiom of one version of English to a speaker from another version can be as tricky as outlining the rules of cricket using baseball terminology. It can be done, but only by tortuous compromises of logic and meaning. From English to English, our idiomatic lapse rate must puzzle newcomers to the language. After a while, once these folk have begun to live and work among us, they become accustomed to hearing strange phrases like ‘she’ll be apples’ or ‘now we’re cooking with gas,’ and they learn that ‘hand it over’ means something other than ‘hand it in’ or ‘hand it back.’ Genuine comprehension problems only occur after they leave the language lab of one English-speaking country and board a plane for another. That’s when the proverbial hits the metaphor.
Newcomers to Australia, for example, will find no translated colloquialisms gift-wrapped with a boxed set of Neighbours or Crocodile Dundee. Even native English speakers on a flying visit will discover they’ve got Buckley’s of solving Oz nuances if they come the raw prawn when some bloke from beyond the black stump tells them Bob’s their uncle. The poor confused arrival might be as flash as a rat with a gold tooth but he’ll still cop the rough end of the pineapple when things go belly up. No dramas but. Even if he’s as mad as a cut snake, doesn’t mean his blood’s not worth bottling.
Not long ago a man and woman of my acquaintance, lately arrived from Delhi, were invited to attend a neighbourhood gathering. The woman was told: ‘Ladies being a plate.’ So she did: an empty plate. Of course she assumed this must be her contribution to local catering. No one had thought to inform her that ‘plate’ meant a casserole, salad, curry or lasagne. Another couple I know, from China, were told by a newly made friend that they must come to lunch. They were taken aback. Must? If I channel Jane Austen to describe their reaction it would read: the summons struck this couple as being somewhat abrupt—and in the imperative mood—for so recent an acquaintance.
We’ve all sniggered at the inadvertent hilarity or cringing embarrassment resulting from transatlantic mismatch of the words ‘bum’ and ‘fanny’. And if a hapless Englishman visiting Australia is called a ‘bastard’ this may not be an aspersion cast on his parenthood so much as a term of endearment. Most devastating of all as a lost translation is the word ‘root.’ When serial offenders Bill Clinton, Shane Warne or Tiger Woods are described by US commentators as ‘rooting for their country’ the resulting laughter in Australian bars and living rooms is quite otherwise than the intended reaction. With apologies to Green Day: I don’t wanna be an American idiom. Some expressions do not travel well.
Lingering in the vernacular of Australian schoolyards is a linguistic mystery, the ill-defined and hard to translate word: ‘Der.’ This expression is not equivalent to Homer Simpson’s ‘D’oh’ and it packs a far more sardonic punch than ‘Duh’. Dating back at least to the 1960s, the epithet ‘Der,’ usually accompanied by a withering glance, is a crushing adolescent put-down that encapsulates a peer group sneer, a that’s-so-obvious-how-can-you-be-so-stupid-nobody-respects-you-so-just-shut-up. Its softer variation, ‘Der, Fred’ hardly takes the sting from this insult.
Idiom may linger in a no-man’s-land between slang and metaphor. ‘Fair to middling’ isn’t the same as ‘fair go.’ The word ‘down’ must confuse students of English because ‘you’re going down, mate’ has nothing to do with ‘it’s getting me down’ or ‘we’re getting down to brass tacks.’ The word ‘pass’ must be even more confusing. Try transplanting it to the land down under, where we pass the hat, the time and the parcel. As our American cousins would say: ‘go figure.’ Then there’s that most everyday of English idioms, ‘How do you do:’ perplexing for beginners, as it’s neither a statement nor a question. In Australia we take this humble salutation even further, venturing into the subjunctive with ‘How’d you be?’ Um… how would I be what?
A standard response to almost any statement or question uttered on these shores is ‘no worries,’ regardless of any expressed anxiety. Run that through the Aus-English filter: latecomers won’t cop any backchat if they keep a civil tongue in their heads and don’t get their knickers in a twist. Mightn’t be their kettle of fish but they’ll come good so long as they keep their noses clean. I mean, fair’s fair.
So, for this week, no worries.
Not long ago I had the following conversation with an erstwhile non-toxic café owner near my place of work.
“What’re you reading? Is that a book?”
I confessed to the barista-proprietor that it sure looked that way.
“Wish I had time to read,” he said.
Hmm. Not a great conversational gambit on his part but the man was usually so agreeable that I took no offence.
“Why?” he asked me presently.
“The book. What’s it for?”
Ah. Now I got it. There had to be an ulterior motive. I was a worker, not a student. So if I’d been reading a magazine or newspaper, there would have been no questions asked. Likewise if I’d been using my iPhone to read Proust or typing my James Joyce thesis on a laptop computer, he wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. But reading a book? Whatever for?
I lacked an excuse, it seemed. If I’d been thumbing a virile thriller (the sort that men receive for Father’s Day or Christmas) that might’ve been all right, even if it offended his work ethic. Had it been something as respectable as a tract on history or politics that could be forgivable too. But this was a literarybook. I mean, what was the point?
“You a teacher?” he asked.
That was it. I could nod and he could relax. I had relieved the man of a quandary. Almost audible were his thoughts of pity.
From other people during the last few years I’ve heard similar versions of puzzlement:
“Why read a book when you can wait for the movie?”
“Why buy newspapers when you can read them on line?”
“There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from a television faster.”
That last one I heard in the film Matilda, spoken by actor-director Danny De Vito. This next one comes from an ex-colleague of mine:
“Why read newspapers? TV tells you all you need.”
I asked him how TV knew what he needed. He had no answer. TV hadn’t prepared him.
Visiting my sister’s home recently, a teenage friend of my nephew remarked at their tome-laden shelves: “Books! How old-fashioned.” Aside from demonstrating her lack of tact, this girl also drew attention to the phenomenon of paperbacks in this era of iPod, iPad, iPhone, Kindle and other e-readers, Google Books and—it has to be admitted—blogs, like this one. Even public libraries have time-limited e-books for loan, and novels on DVD or MP3. I’ve used all of the above, sometimes out of curiosity and sometimes for convenience (while driving for instance).
I can’t answer for anyone else’s needs but I have no wish to abandon the book. So here are my High Fidelity style Top Five Reasons for Sticking with Books: (i) cheapness, (ii) portability, (iii) resistance to malfunction, (iv) sensory appeal and (v) escape from the omnipresence of technology.
If I damage or lose an e-reader, it’s expensive to replace. If I want to lie on a beach, in a park or by a pool to read, I needn’t expose an electronic device to the elements – also books have no batteries to go flat or software to fail. And if anyone borrows or steals my book I can replace it without needing to beg mercy from the bank manager.
Am I alone in savouring a book through my senses? I like their smell—the older ones as much as the new. I love the shape and the style of good binding and attractive covers. And I love the tactile pleasure a book affords.
This pleasure can extend beyond the physical into the imaginative. Some books are heirlooms or treasured possessions lent by a friend. Some have scribbled notes in its margin or flyleaf. Some have stray bookmarks left by me years ago—in an earlier reading life—or left by a stranger whom I will never meet. Some books may have belonged to a famous person: other books belonged to an anonymous owner who cherished them for a while but then had to let them go. And more than a few once belonged to people who didn’t value those books enough, so now the relics have come to me for true appreciation or even for passing on to others.
So what if I can’t perform a global text search on my book? It has practical advantages over the digital version. I can accidentally spill a little coffee or wine on a page, enriching the experience rather than short-circuiting it. I can toss the book into a suitcase without fearing damage from airport scanners or indelicate baggage-handlers. Best of all, I can switch off entirely from the wired world: liberated, like readers of earlier centuries.
Books do furnish a room, but they also provide comfort and joy without network problems or Wi-Fi.
Turning off machinery for a while.
Do you find most examples of technical writing incomprehensible? Not me. I’ve developed a sophisticated but simple decoding method. Put simply, it involves substituting terminology from a parallel discipline. It works equally well with horticulture, musicology or football.
Here’s one I made earlier, from a software installation manual that accompanied the box containing my new laptop computer. See how easily it works as I run it through a translation filter.
1. Insert your phaser into the prime directive and press Engage. You have the bridge.
2. Select Warp Factor Nine and then choose from the positronic menu. Make it so.
3. If a cloaking device is detected, raise the shields and aim a tacheon beam. Activate your replicator to send a photon charge to the forward phaser array.
4. If you are being hailed, press the quantum slipstream drive. Open a channel.
5. If there is a hull breach in progress, eject the warp core and apply a hypospray.
6. If the transporter is a redshirt, take no further action.
7. Use a tricorder to select the correct stardate to send via sub-space through a Jeffries tube to the holodeck.
8. From the tribble menu select Number One using a communicator, find the nearest wormhole and switch to impulse power. Voice command required. Say ‘On Screen.’
9. Do not lose integrity. If in doubt, contact your disruptor. A universal translator will be with you shortly. While waiting, brew some Earl Grey tea, hot.
10. If you experience malfunction, summon a hologram. Please state the nature of the medical emergency.
After throwing away the technical manual I worked out the installation using a little trial and error. This new decoding method is a miracle. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
What – me worry?
Does the majority of the population have much use for reading anymore? No one under thirty buys newspapers, according to media surveys in Australia and Britain. And only a small portion of social media users read a newspaper on-line, or so claims Rupert Murdoch. So while we few, we happy few IT-savvy folk obtain our news—or niche news—from Twitter or Facebook in digestible parcels for unwrapping like a series of Christmas gifts, we remain in the minority. Though our status updates are limited to a small number of characters we can include links upon links upon links. Some of us even read books, including e-books. We’re doing just fine at the literate end of the gene pool. But how many of our less informed brethren need to read more than a few road signs, application forms and the odd TV headline? Many people don’t have the energy or inclination to read for pleasure. Scanning a menu or flicking through a magazine in a waiting room just about does for them. After all, there’s television and YouTube and e-mail… oh, and there’s junk mail.
Eww. Unmentionable. There it lies, lingering at the bottom of the prose food chain. Jammed into letter boxes, the environmental waste is bad enough but who exactly reads this stuff? And yet I contend that junk mail suits our age perfectly: disposable pictures, prices and not a lot else. One of its more glamorous exemplars is the IKEA catalogue: thick as a novel but with substantially less character development. People have even been known to store them on coffee tables as a magazine.
And why not? The shiny pages depict a perfect home that, by rights, ought to belong to a chiselled-featured couple called Sven and Liv. There should be a few Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell paperbacks lying about, and a Volvo or SAAB in the driveway, with perhaps something in the rooftop design hinting at the prow of a Viking ship. IKEA catalogue owners are encouraged to visit this domestic Asgard and sample its ambrosia in the form of soft furnishings with exotic and occasionally amusing names… or am I being culturally insensitive?
Labels hardly matter. In fact, we can forget words altogether. Literacy is optional on planet IKEA, where you don’t need a passport. Anyone can visit. Forget typing into a search engine. Just make the journey. Walk this household product pilgrimage. Most items you purchase will have to be assembled by you or a compliant relative but so what? There’ll be no confusing instructions in nine languages, just a leaflet with numbers and cartoon pictures. Okay, there might be a few surplus plugs and screws left on the floor with an Allen key if you’re not careful. That’s when those product names come in handy. IKEA has provided non-Swedes with convenient terms that can double as swearwords, hand-tooled from Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö. Bügga. Dåmm. Shĳtt. Okay, that’s a cheap shot and I’m being linguistically chauvinist. Also I may have just ordered two ceramic vases and a towel rail. Forget words. Drive or take a bus. The home of the gods is a short trip away. No need for rainbow bridges.
To be fair, IKEA’s catalogue is actually useful: the one piece of commercial postage that many people do not consider junk. While other hand-delivered material goes straight to recycling or landfill, IKEA can rest in full view alongside Vogue and Vanity Fair. But as for those other forms of junk mail, who would miss them if they didn’t exist? Who exactly browses the photo-essays from Aldi, Tesco or Wal-Mart that cram our letterboxes? As for the nuanced postage from Bi-Lo or Costco, how many buyers take note? Brand recognition might constitute one theory, or some attempt to saturate buyer consciousness, or to hook us into a visit with offers of an apparent bargain. But is junk mail a waste of more than paper?
I imagine whole forests denuded just so fashion houses can spend their printing budgets on photo shoots with bored models. Couldn’t the tiniest part of those marketing millions go towards lowering prices? Who reads all that shïjtt? I’d like to know if any academic studies have shown the effectiveness of postal merchandising since the new century began. IKEA tomes aside, just how will junk postage attract crowds in this era of tele-visual spruiking? I seriously doubt that anyone ‘reads’ the bumpf from Sainsbury’s, Coles or Safeway. Aren’t these just places you go?
There must be logic in the madness. There must be market research to reassure retailers that a percentage of the stuff is scanned by human eyes and somehow lodged in short-term shopping memory. People must at least glance at it. Or why would companies, including government agencies, squander squillions on an arboreal by-product doomed for the bin on arrival?
We can discourage consumption with No Junk Mail signs but the lunacy persists. Printers print and we throw it away. What a strategy of illusion. What a full-colour fantasy. What a pulp fiction. Bügga. Dåmm. Shĳtt. Or am I thinking of a nylon chopping board and two types of lampshade?
Enough reading words. Switch off. We’re wasting good shopping time.
For some time I’ve been not so much worrying about as collecting workplace-related oxymorons. The following is a sample only. I exclude product names that lack a basis in logic (e.g. ‘Toys R Us,’ ‘Witchery for Men’) as well as literary or institutional oxymorons (e.g. ‘bittersweet,’ ‘pianoforte’).
Cold as hell
Limited lifetime guarantee
I worry about false labelling: it can mislead the buyer. Many countries now have truth-in-packaging laws to regulate advertisers and protect consumers. But these laws don’t apply to political parties. This is more than an abuse of democracy: it’s an insult to language. It’s also an insult to voter intelligence.
Sometimes political names can mislead because of history; other times they lie on purpose. Here are some examples:
- Britain has a Conservative Party and a Labour Party. No problem: you know what you’re supposed to get in both cases. But what exactly is a Liberal Democrat? Is it a compromise, something vaguely in-between left and right, or a grab-bag of disaffected grumblers from both ends? The labelling gives no clue.
- Less convincingly, the USA has a Democratic Party and a Republican Party. The difference between these two is not obvious from their names. Knowledge of party history is required to decode their traditions. Policy differences today often hinge on semantics and degrees of conservatism. Of late we have the Tea Party, a populist right-wing movement whose label derives from interpreted history. But which interpretation? If tea-chucking into Boston Harbor is interpreted as taking direct action against tyranny, isn’t left-leaning WikiLeaks essentially doing the same? Ambiguous labels can mislead.
- Even less transparent to outsiders is the Irish system of labelling. There’s a Labour Party, to be sure, but the other major parties (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein), do not obviously follow the left-right divide that has prevailed in western countries since the French Revolution, when conservatives sat on the right of the National Assembly president while reformers sat on the left. Read the Fine print.
- And in Australia, there’s almost no truth in party packaging: all the names mislead. The mercurial Republican movement is associated with leftist politics, while the moribund Democrats have a centrist centre. Many believe that the Labor Party no longer represents labour. And the Liberal Party is an institutional euphemism. More on this anon.
‘Down under’ to northern hemisphere countries, things Australian can appear topsy-turvy – like celebrating Christmas in summer. Political names are topsy-turvy too. The country’s principal marketing watchdog, the Advertising Standards Bureau, has either developed a blind spot or allowed a loophole. Its political parties should be prosecuted for false advertising.
Or perhaps Aussies enjoy this joke, evidence of a national capacity for irony. ‘Yeah, right’ is our contemporary version of Eliza Dolittle’s not bloody likely, as we say one thing while stabbing with its opposite. ‘You’re not wrong,’ would be Paul Hogan’s litotic response. However, when we consider antipodean politics, such conversational ironies are small beer in a big brewery. As Mick Dundee might say, ‘That’s not an irony; this is an irony.’ We may regard all the party names as an extended exercise in sarcasm.
Exhibit A: When has the Liberal Party ever been liberal? The nation has developed an odd phrase to cope with this labelling dichotomy: ‘small-l liberal.’ This is almost postmodern in its absurdity. Do we say ‘small-l lesbian’ to distinguish gay women from natives of the isle of Lesbos? Do we say ‘small-l lap dancer’ to distinguish men’s club practitioners from cavorting nomads in Lappland? Why ‘small-l liberal’? Because in 1944 ex-prime minister Robert Menzies wanted to squeeze Labor from office by corralling the middle-class vote. So he gathered remnants of the United Australia Party and some disaffected Labor members, and called it the Liberal Party. But anyone opening that ideological box found it was all Tory inside. That’s how we like our irony served down under: well done. Liberal equals Conservative? It must puzzle American and British psephologists. But the box has pretty common-man packaging, and it’s won a swathe of elections.
Exhibit B: The National Party, which used to be called the Country Party, which was a more honest title. Hardly national, in many electorates it barely registers a pulse. The brains trust of that organisation may have switched the packaging but they chucked away the constituency. Hard to win back brand loyalty if customers can’t identify with your label.
Exhibit C: The Australian Labor Party. The ALP’s ties with trade unions have degenerated since the 1980s. Now it’s often hard to distinguish this party from its so-called conservative opponent; witness the tough policies on asylum seekers, welfare recipients and social services funding. In recent years the party has begun to resemble a couple putting on a show for their in-laws: sharing the house with the ex-spouse. ‘Social Democratic Party’ would be a more honest, if ill-defined, name. But the marketing department doesn’t want to mess with a winning trademark.
Exhibit D: The down-under version of the Tea Party and the British National Party is a movement known as One Nation. It’s never been that, and it never will be. The name is code for One Complexion, One Ethnicity or even One-Eyed. But at least voters know what they’re buying, or rejecting.
Exhibit E: The Australian Greens carry an appearance of label honesty. Aren’t greens supposed to be good for you? Well, some greens are. But closer inspection reveals a coalition of mild to extreme: an ideological swatch ranging from sustainable development to tree-worshiping to eco-terrorism. Still, at least the brand remains true-green.
Exhibit F: The Family First party. Now there’s a loaded name, implying a conformist concept of family. But the word has subtle differences of meaning from culture to culture. There are countless household types in contemporary Australia; foster-parents and extended clans and polygamous couples with live-in partners, and non-related carers living with children or sick or aged. When is a family not a family? And which kinds appear on the party labelling? Family First is code for ‘family values,’ itself code for ‘Christian conservative’. The party members are democratically entitled to their views but not under false pretences. And there’s no fine print here.
Exhibit G: The Australian Democrats. This ailing movement might be the least brand-dishonest across the political pantheon. What you see is what you get. Don’t get much though.
Exhibit H: Independents. A few of them remain impartial and non-aligned but many so-called ‘independents’ once belonged to a major party, so they struggle to avoid the taint of favouritism or sour grapes when helping to form minority governments. Conditions apply.
And that leaves the electors. What avenue do we have for citizen redress? The Advertising Standards Bureau tells consumers how to lodge complaints for misleading or deceptive advertising. But where can voters lodge a complaint if they’ve been deceived by political false labelling?
More than a few Australians suffer from buyer’s remorse after elections, finding a shortage of truth in the advertised packaging. This joke has gone on long enough. It goes beyond an abuse of language; it’s an abuse of universal suffrage. Voters aren’t entitled to a refund but we deserve an apology or two—though I’m not holding my breath waiting.
Meanwhile the think-tankers of various parties will be cooking up new code phrases designed to fool some of the people some of the time. And it’s our language they’re abusing.
I worry about that.
I worry when I read of anyone referring to an indeterminate third person pronoun. Just who exactly are ‘they’?
We hear about ‘them’ often. They’re bringing in new laws. They’ve invented a new gadget. They’re saying that it’s a terrorist threat. They’re at it again. They can’t take that away from me. We seem to fear, distrust, suspect or admire them—whoever they are, but do ‘they’ belong to the mass media, the scientific or political community, our groups of friends or family, or just some Other?
If you have ever thought—or dared to utter—a sentiment along the lines of ‘these people’ or ‘they’re not like us’, that’s an entirely human reaction. And I will go one further. Not only do ‘they’ feel the same as ‘we’ do, but ‘they’ aren’t even they. They are us.
This language we’re reading and writing is a mongrel tongue. One quarter of the world’s population uses it on a daily basis to a greater or lesser degree. We have moved closer to a one-language world than at any time in history, since our ancestors wore animal hides and huddled in caves of the Euphrates Valley. But there’s nothing pure or correct about our Anglo-Saxon-Danish-Norman love-child with its many parents, protectors and critics.
What we call English has evolved through shifting attitudes and tastes in conquest, trade, scholarship, arts, religion, technology and politics. Of course it continues to change. Since you began reading this paragraph, someone around the globe has almost certainly uttered a new word combination in his or her variety of English, perhaps in one of the hybrids known as Japlish, Spanglish or Singlish. If human languages truly have a common source, as many linguists believe—before Babel turned to babble—then we’re all speaking an ‘us’ not a ‘them’ tongue.
Nor can we point to a real ‘they’ in our gene pool, as we share a common ancestor: the ‘Eve’ believed by anthropologists to be our species font. The ‘us-versus-them’ dichotomy becomes even murkier if we apply mathematics to evolution. Everybody has four grandparents, so we all have sixteen great-grandparents and sixty-four great-great-grandparents et cetera. But multiplication can only go back so many generations before we reach an integer larger than the sum of all the people who have ever lived. How can this be? Because ‘they’ are ‘us.’ Incest has happened to every race on earth, and in every family tree at some stage, so there can be no real ‘them’ if we’re all from a common source. Interbreeding has happened between tribes for eons, as we replenish our genetic stock, so if we’re all crossbreeds ‘we’ are also ‘them.’ Even the term ‘indigenous’ is a misnomer, as most so-called indigenous peoples came from somewhere else. We all inhabit migrant societies. Even the longest-surviving civilisation on Earth—the Australian aborigines—were once boat people, admittedly fifty thousand years ago.
So when we go back far enough ‘Madam, I’m Adam,’ as they say in the classics. Or do they? Which classics? I’ve read a few and I don’t recall banalities like this recorded in Homer, Cervantes, Milton or Goethe. I might make a similar complaint about the ‘they’ in ‘so they tell me’ or ‘that’s what they’re saying.’ Yes, I know I should lighten up. Surely these are just harmless expressions. Harmless as long as we’re only chatting. Unfortunately with SMS, e-mail and Web traffic, the boundary between formal and informal English is increasingly blurring. Written chit-chat may turn into written evidence, which could be used in evidence against us, if a throw-away comment takes on more significance than the speaker-texter-author intended. But then they knew that when they set up the Internet, didn’t they? Ah, so they did. Their fault.
I reserve my biggest gripe for the ‘they’ in expressions such as ‘now they’ve come up with a new way of doing it’ or ‘they’re saying it’s all because of global warming.’ Rather than attributing hearsay to some disembodied and indeterminate ‘they,’ I prefer to identify and give ownership to particular inventors, orators and agitators. Perhaps I’m being unfair to colloquial English. After all, most uses of an undefined ‘they’ are just verbal shorthand that do little harm. If we’re certain that everyone listening can understand what we mean, where’s the harm?
Here’s my problem. With the rise of easily accessible social media, and international travel patterns, we live and work in increasingly cross-cultural settings. Not everyone has the same cavalier approach (culture alert: Anglo-centric historical reference) to this language. Fuzziness with words means fuzzy thought. I have in recent years often read ‘they’ in minutes and reports, and seen the results of this sloppiness: confused readers, confused third parties and, occasionally, expensive misunderstandings. I have seen the casual use of ‘they’ broadcasted to forums via Power Point presentations for several thousand people at a sitting, many of whom speak and read English as a second language. And this negligence troubles me. Why decrease the chance of transmitting any message effectively?
Many people may not even notice the mental elision but I find it irritating, even maddening. Why? Because at once I begin to suspect the speaker or writer of trading in slapdash thought. If he or she is careless enough to sprinkle their speech or text with uncertain agents, the rest of the argument may be specious or just incomplete.
‘They’re saying it’s all because of the dollar.’ ‘They reckon the drought will be over soon.’ Where is the harm in stating who ‘they’ are? Newspapers can’t talk. A journalist wrote that opinion piece or presented that TV documentary. A reporting service or a Website documented that activity. A politician or scientist made that statement. Why not credit the law-makers and the op-ed writers and other originators and thinkers? We should accord them the same respect we would give any author whose work we’re quoting. And in drawing attention to the authorship of ideas, we remind readers that assertions are only someone else’s opinion, deserving of debate. Like this one.
Or so they say.