The art of language is slowly dying away

A quick glance around us reveals that little care or emphasis is placed on the basics of language, says Mary Leland

THE man who was fined for ‘wreckless driving’ recently may have wondered what the newspaper headline above a report of his conviction was meant to convey: a punishment for not causing mayhem on the roads? And whether Dunnes Stores (or should that be Dunne’s Stores?) abandoned the copy-writer who produced a seasonal page wishing ‘All Our Customer’s A Happy Christmas’ will probably remain as much a secret as the author of the Jurys Doyle Hotels title. You don’t need to be Lynne Truss, celebrated author of ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ to realise that spelling and punctuation are important even in these days of casual speech and writing.

Always ready to challenge the offer of a Free Gift on the grounds that all gifts are by their nature free, I have been known to wonder in a supermarket if what is promoted as a ‘Sherry Triffle’ is likely to be value for money, while seeing a billboard offering ‘a bowel of soup’ made me swerve from the hotel gateway to seek another inn.

Does this habit make me a public nuisance? Yes, it probably does, but it’s an addiction, your honour, as those men accused of murdering their wives while under the influence plead with often surprising success.

A nuisance, perhaps, but not a purist. The ignorance so happily claimed by Dr Johnson to explain an incorrect entry in his dictionary is my excuse for personal lapses; there was a time, the days of parsing and analysis, when conjugations, declensions, transitive and intransitive verbs, participles and past participles, the perfect and the pluperfect, clauses, objective and subjective were under my control but that time, as with so much else in our educational system, is now probably irretrievable. Does it matter?

To those of us who see language as a link not only to immediate concerns but to a heritage of literacy, little losses seem important: for example, where did ‘versus’ go and who decided it would forever be replaced by ‘vee’? And is there a cure for the habit of those radio and television presenters who keep double time, as in ‘7am in the morning’ or ‘11pm in the evening’, which, as those of us who paid attention in class will know is saying ‘7 in the morning in the morning’. Issues surrounding good grammar, punctuation and spelling should begin with the question: what is grammar itself?

The popular notion is that it is something to be derided as un-necessary and, much worse, old-fashioned. Yet every sentence we speak or hear or write has a construction; even an architect has to study the foundations before building the Arc de Triomphe, and grammar should be seen as the scaffolding of language — essential if we are to reach the top.

But language is fast and flexible. It is what we use day by day, our way of communicating with each other, sometimes hurried, always functional and also always subject to intonation. Our common speech may be adequate even where the word ‘sentence’ is assumed to be something only announced in a court-room rather than a series of words conveying meaning and thoughts.

It has taken some time for educationalists to accept that grammar is the key to coherence, and that to ignore it or degrade it is to deny a key to language.

All anyone uncertain of the correct spelling or form of speech needs to do is check — even if you don’t have Fowler’s Modern English Usage there are dictionaries and of course, Professor Google. Yes, that takes time but I am constantly dismayed by the thought that institutions, businesses and public bodies pay expensive money to sign-writers and copy-editors to produce the inaccurate message (slow-lane?). It’s not all grocers and small retailers who abuse the apostrophe, who don’t grasp the difference between the singular and plural possessive, who think a brace means more than two, who cannot distinguish between less and few (less money, few people, less trouble, fewer problems — although ‘I couldn’t care fewer’ doesn’t seem quite right, somehow…). Given a verbal clue, we can all make the distinction between I and Me: Michael and I are going to Spain; Spain means a lot to Michael and me. This need not be a mystery which confounds even media broadcasters.

The growing tendency to communicate only by email or text means that messages are corrupting the visual coherence of language: Gr8!

With emails there is less emphasis on how we write; as a journalist who still loves the smell of paper, who still enjoys the heft of a fountain pen, the shape and glitter of a nib, there is a sad awareness of being one of a few.

Handwriting too, however, is fading from the list of entitlements: individual ‘hands’ have always included script which almost has to be decoded; famous writers, hurrying to meet a deadline, have sometimes rivalled the legendary inscriptions of doctors.

Yet if you open ancient ledgers or account books and especially if you visit the first-ever public exhibition of The Book of Lismore at UCC’s Glucksman Gallery, you will see how hand and word flow together in a smooth transmission of stories, ideas and information gathered in for a MacCarthy lordship 500 years ago. That’s literacy, a key to the past as well as to the future.

Picture: Book of Lismore: On its first-ever public exhibition at UCC’s Glucksman Gallery

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