Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan
Why is it so many people get so worked up by what they regard as aberrant language when they must know they are fulminating in vain? Usage will out.
Once I accessed John Rentoul’s list of banned jargon and cliché, I realised we were as two (as Woody Allen has put it) in our attitude towards language. He is a prescriptivist (language cop) and I am a descriptivist (language observer), two schools of opinion which arm wrestle over matters concerning grammar and usage.
Prescriptivists tend to be reactionaries disorientated by change or newness. Yet Rentoul is a contemporary journalist, chief political commentator for London’s The Independent. No doubt he is galled by the language of abstraction and obfuscation which is the traffic of politicians and bureaucrats, but that is no excuse for berating everyone for using words and phrases he doesn’t like.
The second word on his proscribed list is “access, as a verb”, which inspired me to use it as the third word of paragraph two above and commit what he would consider a solecism. I think that, used carefully, access is useful as a verb and so do millions of others. Before I go any further, I would remind Mr Language Cop that verbs are action words and one of English’s most energetic converters of nouns into verbs was William Shakespeare who, presumably, would have had a hard time with The Independent subeditors.
Some people were taken aback by the use of a new verb, “medalled” in the sense of “he/she was medalled”, during the recent Olympic Games. I must say I reeled a bit when I first heard it but, whereas Rentoul would have reached sternly for his list, I wondered if it would stick or was it too vague. By the end of the next Olympics we will know whether it has found a place in the language and Rentoul is, thus, whistling into the wind, or whether it has slipped away because not enough people used it.
There is an interesting discussion in some chapters which are a preamble to the List, and one passage on “The allure of the easy cliché” discusses the difficulty of speaking in organised sentences without using the short-cuts of hand-me-down words and phrases. The point is it doesn’t matter much in general conversation, only in written expository speeches – when it matters like hell if they come from politicians or bureaucrats, as William Cobbett noted more than two centuries ago.
A man of many parts, Cobbett wrote A Grammar of the English Language most of it in the form of letters to his 14-year-old son. While he does complain a bit he mainly gives useful advice, including: “He who writes badly thinks badly. Confusedness in words can proceed from nothing but confusedness in the thoughts which give rise to them These things might be of trifling importance when the actors move in private life; but when the happiness of millions of men is at stake, they are of importance not easily to be described.”
Cobbett’s book is instructive, more about what good writing is or should be, although he does make too much of grammatical rules; whereas Rentoul is just another knuckle-rapper, prone in this book to a brusque arrogance.
Another book I read recently is Cliches, Avoid Them Like the Plague, by Nigel Fountain, another UK journalist, who has collected well known clichés, explains their origins and growth, and with good humour sends them up. Much more effective than angrily banning them.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer & commentator and a regular reviewer on this blog.
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