Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live. It reflects our attitudes about the way we see things and how we are seen by others: in public life; in politics and commerce; in advertising and marketing; in broadcasting and journalism. Yet the prevailing wisdom about language seems to be that "anything goes".
Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we're happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings.
That, of course, would be rather convenient for the snake-oil salesmen, unscrupulous estate agents and (dare I say it?) even some politicians who might prefer not to be pinned down to anything too precise. But why should the rest of us settle for the lowest common denominator communication?
At this point, it's also important to be clear about what should not worry us. I don't get all agitated when a young lad is discussing the merits of one MP3 player against another in a language that may be alien to me. And he hardly needs to speak formally correct English when he's chatting up girls in a pub. He has his world and I have mine and we each speak our own kinds of English in them. But we also have a shared world where we need a dependable common language if we're all going to get by.
It is not a case that language should never change, because of course it always does, but that grammar matters. One of the daftest things we have ever done in our schools was to stop teaching it to children. Academics who should have known better came up with the absurd notion that rules somehow confined children, restricted their imagination. Understanding the basic workings of grammar – even if you don't observe all the rules to the letter – can liberate. If you don't know how to construct a sentence, how can you express yourself?
It is a sad commentary on the state of English teaching in schools that most universities now offer some sort of remedial course for basic grammar. The Oxford University Press has just published a new dictionary for students in response to lecturers' complaints that they're forced to waste time correcting basic errors of grammar.
In a monumentally depressing report, the Royal Literary Fund assessed the state of literacy among British undergraduates. It was a compilation of the accounts of professional writers sent in to help students with the basic skills of writing essays. Hilary Spurling, the chairman of the scheme, wrote: "The individual accounts read like dispatches from a front line where students struggle to survive without basic training or equipment… What began as a private scheme devised primarily for the benefit of writers has exposed a public catastrophe."
Perhaps most revealing, and depressing, is the system of inspection for the teachers who bear the responsibility of passing on these skills in the first place. Allow me to introduce you to a little booklet produced by Ofsted, the body responsible for inspecting the nation's schools and trying to ensure that our children get a decent education. It is 22 pages long and entitled Guide to Ofsted's House Style. Among those who received it were the school inspectors.
Here's part of what it says about apostrophes. They are not to be used to indicate plurals, but to "indicate possession… Note the difference between 'its' and 'it's'. The former is a possessive pronoun and does not take an apostrophe. The latter is the contraction of the words 'it is' or 'it has' and does take an apostrophe."
It's just the sort of stuff that I hope my little boy will be taught over the next few years. But that's the point. He is barely six years old. Shouldn't we assume that the people who run our schools inspection system already know all this?
If grammar is at the heart of precision of expression, then the shifts in the lexicon are equally revealing about the way we live now. Let's start by considering the language of hype that has become so pervasive.
One of the nice things about knowing someone who's famous is being able to compare the public perception with the private man. I've know John Simpson for 30 years – he's one of my closest friends. Unlikely as it might seem when you watch him analysing the latest foreign crisis on television, he would have made a good stand-up comedian.
John also writes wonderfully funny letters. So when I received one from him recently on headed paper I was puzzled. It began: "I am very excited to have been appointed chancellor of Roehampton University and hope you will be able to join me at a ceremony to celebrate my new role… for what I'm sure will be a fun event."
So a man who can't see a war without wanting to be part of it was "very excited", and looking forward to a "fun event". Did it mean there would be a tombola during the Latin oration and an egg-and-spoon race while all the mortar-boards were being doffed? Perhaps the vice-chancellor was going to do a pole dance instead of the usual speech. I doubt it. The more mundane explanation was that John hadn't written the letter at all. The letters were sent out on his behalf – which explains the hype.
Of course, there has always been hype. It has been with us since the birth of the modern advertising and marketing industry: a low-level noise to which we have become so accustomed we pay it barely any attention. But it has crept into all areas of our lives. Hence the use in the academic world. It has also become so much more… well… hyper.
It has even infiltrated what I still think of as the musty offices of HM Customs and Revenue (the Inland Revenue in old money). It recently described itself as "working with the largest customer base of any UK organisation".
Well, yes, they would be, wouldn't they? For the very simple reason that we have no choice. So why make such a daft boast? You know the answer.
The supermarkets are masters of the art – always trying to persuade us how thrilling it will be if we share our shopping experience with them. Note "experience". We don't shop any longer. We have an "experience".
At the heart of this hype process, in which the "experience" is all, individual words are given an even sharper 180 degree change of direction. Take "enjoy". You're sitting in a restaurant, the waitress brings your meal and, with a sweet smile, says, "Enjoy!" I want to say: "Don't you know that 'enjoy' is a transitive not an intransitive verb? You should say, 'Enjoy it!' not 'Enjoy!'."
And it doesn't just stop at the words. It's a couple of centuries since nouns in the English language were routinely capitalised. Mostly we do the opposite now. It seems obligatory for "re-branded" companies to have their name in lower case. Publicity material often gives lower-case letters to words in sentences that scream out for a capital.
This is the title to an introductory brochure to LA Fitness gyms in London: "welcome! To your LA Journey.'
This is positively perverse. If ever a word demanded a capital it's that "welcome!". It cannot be an accident – the writer's finger slipping off the shift key – because someone would have noticed, wouldn't they?
"Journey", you will have noticed, does have a capital letter. It's another of those gooey words like "awareness". It has an obvious physical meaning and, if you happen to be into this sort of thing, a metaphysical one too. For most people the gym "journey" is a brief one.
But even more interesting in the brochure title is the word "your". This little fellow is elbowing his way into everything. Where the world once consisted of lots of different things, free-standing and independent and among which "you" were just one in six billion, now everything is presented as though it were just an extension of you.
Note "your M&S", Marks & Spencer's newish slogan. It is disarmingly simple, and it is untrue. M&S does not belong to the customers: it belongs to the shareholders.
Forget the Copernican revolution. The new geography of the universe has you at the centre of it and around you is a comfort zone in which you should feel good about yourself. Advertising peddles this line all the time.
Meanwhile, life itself has been replaced by lifestyle. And with it comes the ubiquitous "makeover", because anyone who wants to get a lifestyle must surely need a makeover.
A few years ago, a call came from Light Entertainment (LE) asking me to present Mastermind. This is the glamorous bit of the BBC. If News is a fairly ropy (but reliable) old Ford, LE is a flashy Lamborghini. At LE they care about what you wear. And how. So I wasn't unduly surprised when I had a call from a young man asking me if I'd spend the day with him shopping for new clothes. I needed, it seems, a "makeover".
After a few muted protests I loved it. I discovered what every woman knows from birth: clothes do make you feel different. But makeovers have taken over. Until relatively recently the words "lifestyle" and "makeover" didn't even appear in the dictionary – much less the television schedules. Imagine the vast stretches of blank screen over the past few years if makeover shows had been removed. Everything gets one now.
And the sinister truth behind them is that it's not just our houses or our wardrobes or our gardens that they are designed to change. It's us. It is we who must be fashioned anew.
Here's one example from an upmarket newspaper: "We like to connect with the values of the snowboarding lifestyle." Even those addicted to snowboarding may scratch their heads about why standing on a board and hurtling down a snow slope should constitute a lifestyle. Even odder, why should such an activity have "values"? And what exactly are they? Honour? Loyalty? Frugality? Concern for others?
Meanwhile, the elderly should not imagine that they are going to be let off so easily. Earlier this year, while many of them may have been pootling around in their greenhouses, the big retail companies were forking out £700 a ticket to attend a one-day conference in London focused on helping them get their hands into elderly pockets.
You can see why they'd want to. The over-fifties control 80 per cent of the UK's wealth, 60 per cent of its savings and 40 per cent of its disposable income.
The title of the conference was "Turning Grey Into Gold: Blending Cutting-Edge Population Knowledge with Innovative Marketing to Segment and Connect With the Older Market". Pretty punchy, eh?
The phrase "the old" seems to be dying out. Incidentally, if I had the power to issue guidelines I would decree that any reporter at the BBC (or anywhere else) who refers to old people by their first names should be strung up by their heels. It's not just a gross impertinence, it is deeply patronising.
When Gordon Brown met that remarkable old man Henry Allingham, the last living survivor of the Battle of Jutland who was celebrating his 110th birthday, the Chancellor was referred to in several reports as Mr Brown but Mr Allingham became "Henry". What a bloody cheek.
That aside, in a world where 60-year-olds become mothers, it's entirely plausible that marketing people should propel their feelgood brands into the grey limelight. And if feelgood doesn't work, well, there's always "feelbad". That's not in the dictionary because I've just coined it.
The most potent feelbad tactic is to persuade us we're suffering from something not far short of an illness. This sort of "advertisement" for instance: "Growing Concerns: one in four women in the UK suffer from thinning hair." Advertisers love "suffer". I'd prefer to save such a powerful word for people with something a bit more serious than thinning hair.
To judge by my readers' letters, I am pushing at an open door in defending language from the current onslaught. All those people who have written to me cannot be dismissed as a bunch of cranks living in the past. They are not saying language must never change, must always remain as they remember it in some mythical golden age. They know it must adapt to changing times, as it always has.
But they do not want to feel alienated in the public space that, at some time or another, we all occupy. They are entitled not to be offended by semi-literate rubbish. That is why we should not be deterred from continuing to make a fuss about the mangling and manipulating of the language. It matters too much.
Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now by John Humphrys (Hodder & Stoughton) is available for £9.99 + 99p p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112
Show MoreThe article I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language, by John Humphrys, addresses text messaging as a threat to people's ability to engage formally in use of the English language; especially in the younger generation. John Humphrys takes a unique perspective when analyzing the practice of text messaging. Humphrys focuses on the present and mainstream uses of text messaging, without analyzing the historical processes and the language values of the so called text speak. This paper will argue against John Humphrys' claim. Text messaging is a valid form of language as it; has been created through historical and social processes; holds a set of unique and evolving characteristics; and therefore in no way harmful to the users'…show more content…
Can you imagine typing an entire paragraph with proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar on a device that is the size of your hand, while your thumb is equivalent to the size of two to three keys altogether? Moreover, the use of abbreviations is not unique to text messaging. Similar styles of writing can be traced to the days of telegraphese, a hundred and twenty years back, where telegraph operators were reported to use abbreviations similar to those in modern texts. Therefore, text speak wasn't created by some teenagers trying to avoid using proper English grammar. And it definitely wasn't created to fool the adults with abbreviations and often strange emoticons. It had an economic purpose that later on transformed into an efficient language to deal with the space and time constraints of text messaging. John Humphrys is not the only person who criticizes text speak's harmfulness to young people's ability to communicate and write in formal English; it has now become a prominent social debate. However, most people agree that text speak is a language, even John Humphrys wrote, “texting and netspeak are effectively different languages.” (2007:2) Moreover, a recent study on text messaging in Hong Kong revealed that there is a causal relationship between the introduction of new information communication tools (ICTs) and new forms of language and literacy (Li et al. 2007:1). If text