|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.