A couple of years ago, the then editor of the Daily Telegraph asked me to revise the paper's style book. Having done so — and it was a task far more complex and exhausting than I had imagined it would be — I started to send out emails every three or four weeks to my colleagues to highlight mistakes they were continuing to make. The newspaper market is fiercely competitive. We need every reader we can get, and none of us wants to hear of somebody cancelling his subscription because he is irritated by the journalists' command (or otherwise) of the English language.
A good grasp of grammar helps one commit fewer (not less) mistakes
These emails ended up being leaked into the outside world and on to the internet. They were spotted there by an editor at Random House who asked me to compose a more detailed book on how to write correctly. I did so with trepidation: not merely because we all make mistakes, but because I was well aware that there is a school of thought that says there is no such thing as writing correctly. Nonetheless, the fruit of my labour, Strictly English (Random House, £12.99), has just been published.
I have been a professional writer, both of journalism and of books, for nearly 30 years. I started out as a sub-editor on a scientific magazine. Our contributors' English was not inevitably wonderful and it was my task to improve it. To be sure I was doing so, I swotted up on two aspects of English: its grammar and its style. For the first, I read the usual Fowlers, Partridges and Gowerses; for the second, I drew on my degree in English and tried to discriminate between those who wrote badly and those who wrote well. A prejudice for short sentences, short words and concision came from an extensive reading of George Orwell, whom I still rate as the finest writer of English prose in the last century.
This training has carried me through my career, and its principles have informed the book I have just written. I found, however, when writing the book that I could not merely take what I thought was right, both in grammar and in the use of words, and inflict it upon others. I found I needed to try to justify myself first. Therefore, my opening chapter briefly discusses the attempts to codify the grammar of our language and the meaning of words that led in 1928 to the completion of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and, on the way, to an attempt by C. T. Onions, Otto Jespersen and others to settle the grammar. I came up against the beliefs of linguists and other radicals that our language, being organic, will evolve: and I had to make an argument for why words should not change their meaning for reasons of ignorance (as opposed to reasons of necessity) and why the logic of grammar should remain inviolable. Many academic linguists will simply not agree. Tough: my book is not aimed at them.
Like many of my generation, I was fortunate to study foreign languages at school: in my case French, Latin and Greek. As a result, I learned the rules of grammar. I learned when to use an adjective and when an adverb. I learned about the sequence of tenses. I even learned about the subjunctive. But what of those who have never had a grammar lesson in their lives? What of those whose spelling has never been corrected? What of those who use words entirely wrongly? I am well aware that to many this simply does not matter: if they can be understood by interlocutors or someone reading their emails, that is all that matters. Yet do we wish our language to be corrupted by ignorance, as opposed to changing legitimately when the need dictates it? I suspect we don't.
There is, though, a more practical point about language. We live in an old country and therefore in a class-ridden society. However much we may protest to the contrary, we still judge people by how they speak. If our command of English is good enough to spot grammatical errors in the speech or writing of others, or to note that someone has misused a word, then we shall come to a certain conclusion about them. If the person who makes the error is one who seeks to present an air of credibility, then he will be damaged by his slip. Many people are conscious of this, which is why they read books such as mine in order to try to ensure that they avoid exposing themselves in this way.