« When managers are unreasonable | Main | Courses for seniors »

The language police

September 08, 2006

We don’t have to be language police or elitist or dinosaurs.


I recently plugged the children’s version of Lynne Truss’s improbable bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. I think the book deals with punctuation in an accessible way through humour and clear examples. I was, therefore, surprised to find that David Crystal, English language “expert”, has criticized Truss for her approach of “zero tolerance” to punctuation errors. Crystal lumps her together ...

...with the language police, who resist all change and believe that it is always possible to be either right or wrong.

It seems to me that Crystal is shutting his eyes to a very real and dangerous trend in English use that has less to do with language policing than the poor levels of understanding about how the language works. That language is organic and evolves to reflect the communicative needs of speakers is a given. On a purely practical level, it allows us to incorporate new vocabulary for new phenomena. But it also allows us to be creative, sometimes with humour, sometimes more poetically. There is no Platonic language template in ideal form out there: we shape it as we need.

However, there is a difference between understanding how to manipulate grammar and vocabulary for a purpose and misusing it through ignorance. What Truss shows is that punctuation alters meaning. Put in the wrong punctuation and you won’t say what you want to say. Thus a sign reading: slow children crossing means something quite different from: slow, children crossing.

Unfortunately, when I read written English by native speakers and hear many of the professional broadcasters who dominate the media, I fail to understand what is meant. The clarity of expression is so undermined by failure to understand how English works, that either no message is conveyed, the wrong message is given, or the speaker deliberately intends to mislead. Take this example from one Katherine Coutney, an American whizz kid appointed by the British Government to oversee the introduction of identity cards: I think it is important to say that while the pilot itself is not really about testing the robustness and scalability of the particular biometric technologies that are being deployed, it is about studying the enrolment process and the customer experience and being able to validate some of the assumptions that we have built into the business case around the time that it takes to enrol and the customer acceptability.

Here we have poorly constructed sentences, meaningless buzz phrases and a spew of words designed to obfuscate and mislead. Poorly constructed English can be dangerous! How can anyone reply to this goobledegook? It seems to me that standards in the use of English are important. We all need to understand the grammatical framework that underpins the rich language we enjoy. There may be no absolute right or wrong but there certainly is a well-constructed sentence as opposed to a meaningless mishmash. We don’t have to be language police or elitist or dinosaurs. But we do need to help our students attain precision and clarity in their statements and that, I am afraid, means understanding the principles of English grammar in all their complexity.

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


  1. Sinan Bayraktaroglu Says:

    Hello Brenda

    I enjoy reading your articles. You are doing a very inspiring job for the teachers, managers, and others alike. Well done.

    You might be interested in this anecdote:

    An English teacher writes the following phrase on the board and asks his/her students to punctuate it:
    a woman without her man is nothing

    A boy comes up to the board and punctuates the phrase as:

    A woman, without her man, is nothing.

    And then a girl comes up and punctuates as:

    A woman: without her, man is nothing.

    Hope you'll like it !

    Best wishes

    Sinan Bayraktaroglu

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Sinan,

    It's good to have feedback from an acquaintance. I like your example of the difference punctuation makes and will make use of it when next I have a writing class.

    Best wishes,

  1. Lee Says:

    Hi Brenda,

    Great article. If George Orwell were alive today, perhaps he would have had to include (and make a good example of) the rather mind-baffling statement by the American Whiz Kid you quoted in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language."

    I usually assign that essay to my own composition students, but you'd be surprised at how many college freshmen can't even understand Orwell's words!

    It's an uphill struggle, it seems.

    Keep up the good work,


  1. renate Fekete Says:

    I am a (pensioner) China teacher and have been for four years. Though we are very welcome here, sometimes one lacks useful conversation - for which the computer has to cover. It is really good to find every type of conversation in our field going on..and that is using simple English!
    I just wanted to share this one - Sometimes you wonder if what you are doing has any use..wouldn't it be better just to sit at home with family and friends, comfortable and without so many stresses, mosquito bites and super-hot, muggy weather, not to mention strange toilets and odd water systems...especially as I paint and write poetry?
    A couple of years ago, when I returned after a year away with a broken foot, one of my pupils had already become a teacher - and only today, an administrator here where I am working, across County from my last University, recognized me as her teacher from four years ago at a dinner the college were treating us to...It is quite gratifying to see these young people achieving their potential in this way, especially when I was told she was one of the best people they have... and that is without even checking the hundreds of pupils I have taught in my time over here.
    Renate Fekete
    chinese name ..Miss Hei.

Post a Comment



Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)