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I am a grumpy old man, I have been for some time. Quite possibly I was a grumpy young man. Come to think of it, most babies are a bit grumpy from time to time. Maybe its been a lifelong thing with me. One of the things that makes me grumpiest is the way our language is sinking into decline from carelessness and ignorance.

Obviously, the growth of entirely content free conversation is a huge worry "I was like, you know, "Oh my god", and she was like, "Whatever", and I was like "SHUT UP", and  . . ." und so weiter. Presumably the participants in such conversations have some idea what they are talking about, but its hard to know how. I suspect a deliberate policy on the part of our education system to render the populace so incapable of rational thought that they represent a completely malleable mass of unthinking followers for manipulative politicians.

I also worry about the way professional writers use language. I was prompted to this outburst by the sentence "If any female wanted to seek a way forward to do something remarkable with their lives this would be a good starting point." This was written by Sandi Toksvig for the Seven supplement to the Sunday Telegraph on 13th March. It riles me because:

  1. the clash between the singular subject "any female" and the plural "their lives" - its totally unnecessary - "her life" has no hint of political incorrectness as the topic is International Women's Day
  2. she does not mean "any female" - there are a large number of female wombats which would get no benefit at all from the Women of the World festival (fewer than there were perhaps because of recent droughts and forest fires) - she means "women"

"If any woman wanted to seek a way forward to do something remarkable with her life this would be a good starting point."

is a much better sentence. The original is not the worst sentence ever written, but what worries me is why ST should not automatically write the better one.

The recent census contains examples of carelessness, which obviously it should not, having been in development for over 100 years now, and one can only hope, proof read by many senior civil servants. Yet the very first question contains "Me" where it should say "I". Did no one reading it before publication even try putting in the verb? "Who usually lives here? -Me usually lives here". Is the Office for National Statistics staffed only by geeky mathematicians with no command of language? Or is carelessness now the norm?  

Question 14 for each person asks about his/her roles as (unpaid, I think is the implication) carer. Question 23 asks "Are your day to day activities limited because of a health problem or disability which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months?". Now if you are a carer for a friend or relative then your activities will be limited, and questions 14 and 23 are almost the same question. What I think they meant for 23 was "Do you personally suffer from a health problem or disability which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months and which limits your day to day activities?" But that's not what they asked. Careless.

So while I'm at it let me trot out a few other pet hates in the way words are used.

"Refute" - I know what refute means - it means to prove to be false or erroneousas an opinion or charge, or to prove (a person) to be in error. It means that evidence has been adduced to demonstrate beyond doubt that the accusation is false. So to hear it used simply to mean "deny" distresses me. The underlying connotation will somehow be carried through to the hearer, and something much stronger inferred than is the case. Politicians "refute" accusations of corruption, or over claiming expenses, or doing U-turns, without even making a case, let alone producing evidence. This is an example, not of carelessness, but of a deliberate manipulation of language to convey a meaning which is not actually present. They should not be allowed to get away with it. 

 

Well, this has been quite a satisfactory rant, but duty calls, I have to go and do something constructive. Fear not, I will return to this topic.
 

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Tags: crouch end, crouchend, haringey, hornsey, london n8, usage and abusage

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Comment by CrouchEnd Cupcake on March 29, 2011 at 10:51
I shall sit quaking for your return.  I largely agree with everything you say, which may be a first!  But, I dash off sentences willy nilly sometimes and once done and dusted reread and think, I wish I'd written that instead.  I like Ms Toksvig, she makes me laugh and perhaps she is now kicking her little legs and wishing she'd constructed her sentence in a better way.

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