Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Stephen, Stephen, Stephen... Fry, that is

Another very fine photo of Stephen Fry

So, we’re back on language, today, and that’s two days running, and aren’t I proud of myself for managing to stick to my mission statement and for not getting sidetracked into opinions, yet again?

Well, I would be, except that this blog contains a big, fat opinion of oozing pustulousness or pustularity... Ah, there it is: Pustulation! 

Stephen Fry would be very happy for me to use whichever of those words I chose under most circumstances, and, frankly, I wouldn’t much care if I was confronted with any of them by anyone, verbally, either.

On this subject, Stephen Fry and I broadly agree. At least, that’s the way it all began.

The subject is language, and its use and abuse, and Mr Fry has written and performed a piece explaining his position, which you can and should see on YouTube, over here.

Go on, have a look; I’m not going anywhere.

Mr Fry is an educated man. He studied English Literature at Queens' College, Cambridge, back in the 1970s when an education was still exactly that, so he knows of what he speaks, and I think he’s on the right track. I think many of us have become pedants. I think the English language is rich and changing, and I think there’s a good deal to be said for that.

I think there’s a good deal to be said for that all the time we’re getting more out of the language, expanding our horizons, breathing new life into it, stopping it stagnating and broadening its appeal.

Yes, we all know what is meant by ‘five items or less’, and I’d forgive anyone for saying it, but for a corporate body to print it on every sign in every shop still seems wrong to me, and stupid and lazy.

Stephen Fry deliberately makes an error in his nifty little speech, and even points it out so that we can laugh along with him. He fails to notice that he says, “Anyone who expresses themselves...” when what he means is, “Anyone who expresses himself...” Shame on you Mr Fry with your Cambridge degree, and he also says, “Almost never ever.” I’m sure that ought to be one or the other.  Something can be ‘almost never’ or, emphatically, ‘never, ever’, but surely not a combination of those two things. Stephen Fry talking about language, and doing it beautifully, even making a point in favour of a changing and less formal language does himself no justice in making these small, but jarring errors. 

Mr Fry lost me almost before he had begun when that first error occurred during the first paragraph of his piece. He began to win me back, but that, “Almost never ever” really did it for me.

I decided that I was a pedant after all. I began to hate myself, and I began to understand why people rail against my pedantry.

Then Mr Fry shot himself in the foot, and this is how he did it. Stephen Fry decided to talk about job interviews. He talked about changing one’s language to suit an occasion. Oh dear, oh dear. What makes Mr Fry think that anyone can simply step up and use language correctly when he’s never been taught to do it, and has never been able to do it in the past?

He says that when going for an interview you might, “Slip into a suit, and dress your language up too.”

Well, I suppose you might if you knew how.

Anyone can buy a suit, and almost everyone does at some point in his life, either to become a cater waiter or to go to a wedding or a funeral; some men even buy suits to wear to interviews. 

Dressing up your language at a moment’s notice isn’t simply a matter of walking into the local Top Man and spending a couple of hundred quid, or, for that matter, any amount of money, though, is it? If you’ve got your 5 grade A to C GCSEs from the local secondary school, scraped through the sixth form with enough UCAS points to get into Nottingham Trent to do Business Studies, and ended up with a third and student loan debts to the tune of several thousand pounds, dressing your language up, too, might well be beyond you.

Stephen Fry forgets his time and place among us when he takes up these causes. Language is not changed and enriched by kids slipping into a suit for an interview; they are hamstrung by it. They need more education and it needs to be better, and they need better role models. Men like Stephen Fry, and women too, of course, can offer them precisely that. He can and does do that every time he opens his mouth, precisely because he does speak beautifully and eloquently on any subject that he chooses to discuss.

Sometimes I wish he’d choose his material a little more thoughtfully. On this occasion, Stephen Fry might have encouraged kids to read and write, and he might have encouraged them to talk to one another and to go to the theatre when they have the opportunity, perhaps to see some Shakespeare, whom he referred to in his piece. He might have encouraged them to laugh together and share language, and that might include their own language, because the language of youth is extraordinary; I know, because I’ve got kids. 

I know Stephen Fry wasn’t saying that learning doesn’t matter, and that grammar doesn’t  matter. I know he wasn’t saying, actually, that clarity and specificity don’t matter. He’s a man wholly in command of language... Well, almost; I just feel he could have used that command more wisely, and more fully, on this occasion, to benefit a wider audience.


  1. “Anyone who expresses themselves...”I would argue that this is valid and inclusive were as the outmoded turn of phrase “Anyone who expresses himself...” is inherently sexist and excluding the majority of humanity.

    Male is no longer the default or at least it should not be and the language we use and how we discuss matters reflects our thinking processes.

    So we have see the decline of mankind and it being replaced with humanity. I think this is a step forward as our use of language evolves. Such steps which are for the betterment I applaud.

    The use of words which were and still are pejorative such as Gay/Ghey or the use of rape to mean to have won or owned/pwned someone I do not support.

    1. As to the first example, why not just use, "People who express themselves"? I agree with you that 'himself' need not be the default, but why choose the singular in the first instance?

      On the pejorative use of Gay or the use of rape to mean 'owned' I very much agree with you.

    2. Why? in order to try and keep the tone and context of the original expression by only changing the last term.

    3. The point is to agree terms, single and plural. When the sentence begins with a single, 'anyone' it should agree with a single 'himself' or 'herself'. If you want to avoid the masculine term, and change it to 'themselves' then a plural agreement is required and 'anyone', which needs to be agreed with should become a plural, hence, 'People' or, if you prefer, 'Those who'.

      Is that clear, now? Smiles.

  2. Exactly. Language changes all the time and sometimes it gets outright raped.

    Just look at people having issues with these:
    Your - You're
    Their - There - They're
    Then - Than
    It's - Its

    I've seen this far too often and very often among native speakers of English. Though I think that's really just the tip of the iceberg. It's not just language, it's the grasp of many things and it's certainly not a phenomenon only happening in English.

    I know it's happening in German, too. Kids come out of school with having big issues with proper spelling and grammar.

    I think the reason is two-fold

    1) The education systems are crippled, that's a fact that applies to pretty much everywhere and it's the politicians' fault. I know here in Austria and in Germany there's a discussion of abolishing grades (nor more As and Bs, etc) and allowing kids who fail a course to advance to the next level anyway. Now add that more and more teachers have a) zero authority in their classroom and kids do whatever they want and b) lack any experience at anything having to do with real life. They come out of college and go straight into teaching. All they have is book smarts and that's not enough.

    When I was in school we had a lot of old-school teachers still. Some of them would just have to look at us to shut us up. We respected their authority, and, at times, maybe even feared it. They were strict, but, in retrospect, most were fair too. We had one teacher, in psychology and philosophy, who's form of authority was "Please be quiet or I have to ask you to be quiet". Guess what happened. Nobody took him seriously.

    2) The parents. I'm a LEO and I see a lot of parents not giving a damn about their kids anymore. They expect school and the government to do everything. These "parents" are too absorbed with themselves and ignore the responsibility they have towards their children.

    Now add one and two together and the result is idiots. That may sound harsh, but I know small business owners who would hire apprentices at once, but who can't find qualified candidates because those kids who go for it suck at their native language, fail at basic math or they simply don't care about being punctual, etc.

    I'm not saying all are like that, but an ever increasing number certainly is.

  3. Well, as a linguist (at Nottingham Trent University, thank you) I found Mr. Fry's comments to hit the nail on the head. But, as you've said, it's not as easy as putting on a suit as apt as the metaphor may otherwise be. I think the big key to being able to use language "formally" is being given the opportunity to do so. Yes, you can be trained, but language is a natural function that should develop naturally, coaxed by reading books, writing extended pieces and speaking publicly or privately in formal settings. These are things the education system must include and encourage as Edohiguma has alluded to.

    1. You see... you're never on safe ground, are you? Or, more importantly, I never am. I was going with red brick, and my nephew went to Trent, so it came easily to mind... What were the chances one of my readers was an alum? My bad, but I'm sure you realise there was no insult intended. Smiles.

      As to the rest; I think your point apposite and well-made, and not at all at odds with what I was saying.