Attitudes to Language Change Stickling point

The readers' editor on... when accuracy becomes obduracy
Ian Mayes Saturday June 17, 2000 The Guardian

Occasionally I get letters from readers who, while they appear to share with a great many of you an intense interest in the way we use and misuse the English language, suggest that the paper is sometimes too fastidious in its published corrections. Commonly, they remind me that the language is changing. "English, of course, evolves; thus there is always a healthy tension between the desire to preserve a word's original meaning and the acknowledgement that it has changed." This reader welcomed my attempts to restore, in their occurrences in the Guardian, the words "enervate" and "mitigate" to their proper meaning. "But if English is to avoid being a mere ossuary," he went on, "I do think it is necessary to know when to admit that a usage has made the switch to being acceptable." The reader argued for the definition of celibate/celibacy to be relaxed to acknowledge as perfectly legitimate the meaning that most of us give it, which is "abstaining from sex". We have, in fact, now done that, and await the wrath of the rump. The objections to spending any time or space on this kind of thing come from readers unafflicted by the pedant's zeal (we have a number), who want their paper to be well written but believe that points of grammar and precise meaning are piddling matters that divert our attention from more serious faults. They are not and they do not (as, perhaps too often, the daily corrections column shows). Others argue for a policy of aquiescence and, they would say, perspective. Sweeping changes are taking place in the media that are already having a profound effect on our use of language. The internet is advancing the use of American English and creating a new jargon. Email is introducing an unprecedented informality into our correspondence. The new electronic media, whether you are reading from a screen on your desk or from a tiny device held in the palm of your hand, are developing a language stripped of all frills. Why not go with the flow? Most of the colleagues to whom I have spoken about this believe more rather than less attention to language is called for in the new environment. The editor of our website, a person truly in the forefront of change, plays anything but a passive role. "Language has to work harder in a smaller space. It is more important than ever that we put the apostrophe in the right place," he said. He stressed that the language that was developing on the website aimed to be "functional, terse and tight". If you were reading headlines from your Wap (wireless application protocol) phone, you did not want, and did not get, poetry. It was more important that reports were written in clear and grammatical English, criteria that applied throughout the Guardian and, even more to the point, were expected of it. I have mentioned before that more of you write to me about English than about any other subject. I have several kilos of correspondence in the form of letters, faxes and printed-out emails. Everything is read by me and, in most cases, by the editor of the style guide, and indeed your suggestions have made a useful contribution to the guide. We shall continue to campaign for the correct use of the apostrophe - rather than for its abolition, as one of our columnists (who knows well how to use it) recently suggested. A sentence such as the following brings a flurry of complaints: "They've made trips to old quarry's to gather stones." One reader, who pointed it out, rather kindly added, "I can't believe it." Complaints always follow our use of media as singular (the style guide reminds journalists that it is plural), and, similarly, criteria, graffiti, phenomena... More exotically, we have referred to "a seraphim", "a libretti" and "a strata". The invaluable New Fowler's Modern English Usage (revised by RW Burchfield) on the subject of a singular strata as opposed to stratum, or plural stratums as opposed to strata, says, "Such erroneous forms are occasionally found in loosely edited modern books and newspapers. The traditional -um (sing) and -a (pl) should be insisted on, at present at any rate." The one that invariably causes an eruption is bacteria used as a singular noun. A correction drew a remonstrance from a reader who suggested that the subeditor was simply ahead of the times and that bacteria, like data and criteria, was now well established as a singular noun by custom. Time will tell.

What the reader actually said was: "Your subeditor was probably just a little ahead of their time ('their' is of course now an established singular form of common gender, as I hope I don't need to tell you)." Ah, but you do. It is not yet established at the Guardian, although it sometimes crops up. Try to be patient. It is probably only a matter of time.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000

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