Speakin’ Proper

8 03 2009

[This show was recorded live, and includes a brief news bulletin at the beginning. You can listen to a recording here.]

One of the great joys of broadcasting on the radio is that you never have to worry about how to spell things. Of course, pronunciation and tone are more important than in print but on the whole, if you use simple language this shouldn’t be a problem.


Unfortunately our colleagues in the print industry are not so fortunate. Not for them is the little trick of writing out a word phonetically and reading it aloud into a microphone. They must research and check, proof-read and check again. Indeed, their problem is compounded. Us radio journalists may rejoice at the fact that, when we slip up the evidence of our failings merely echo through the airwaves once, and die. Not so the newspaper hack. When they get it wrong their mistake is laid out for all to see and will remain with them for eternity – much like that single paw print in the corner of a freshly-laid concrete path.


Well, you can imagine my smug satisfaction when, last week, I read an article in one of York’s student newspapers. The author laid out a damning indictment of the current Student Union administration. His argument rested on the accusation of incompetence. On the whole, he made a solid case. There were plenty of examples to demonstrate the incompetence of the union, and his article made clear the importance of voting for competence rather than anything else at the forthcoming Union elections.
There was, however, one chink of credibility in this fellow’s argument, that fell away. In the whole five hundred words of highly convincing prose he failed – even once- to spell correctly the word so central to his argument: competence. Indeed, the author was clearly aware of his failing as he tried a number of different spellings in the vain hope that he might inadvertently stumble upon the correct one.


I must confess that this brought out of me a most unpleasant reaction. Perhaps it is just me, or perhaps everybody gets this. There are some opinions I would quite like to hold because they are attractive and point towards a decent sort of outlook on life. Unfortunately, though I do not hold them no matter how much I kid myself that I do. Consequently I am obliged to reconcile myself to being a horrible person, pick up my pen and write in to the Daily Telegraph.


Well, this is just one of those cases. There is a delightful argument that says spelling, grammar, punctuation, and all the rules bundled up with them, are all unnecessary. They hold us back. Instead, we should let language flow organically and evolve so that each generation brings their own sense of meaning to the way that we communicate. Language has always changed and adapted. Shakespeare used to make up his own rules!


I yearn to agree with all of this – honestly, I do – but the truth is I don’t, and I can’t.


Our friend writing in the student newspaper has already made most of my case, I suppose. No doubt a large number of his readers were absorbed and convinced by his article oblivious to his mistake. However, another number – I can’t tell you whether it would be large or small – will have seen his mistake, and consequently the point he was making will have been wasted. That entire writer’s credibility had gone and any journalist will tell you that credibility is everything. For the sake a simple ‘Spell-check’ the whole article is rendered worthless.


Stephen Fry, that doyen of all things intellectual, has made a different case. He believes that the rules we use to communicate are too stuffy; that if we abandoned them then we might, at last, get to really enjoy speaking English. Clearly Mr Fry has ever attempted to play the guitar. Like any instrument, the guitar has rules for playing it. You have to arrange your fingers in a certain position in order to achieve a certain sound. You have to play particular notes and chords in a particular order to achieve a certain tune.


I’ve no doubt that one can take great satisfaction from mindlessly strumming a random collection of strings in a wild attempt to create music. But the true joy of music, surely, is to become familiar with the rules and only then begin to experiment with them.


Now, I am no grammar Nazi. You won’t find me at three ‘o’ clock in the morning scurrying down the high street pasting out inappropriate apostrophes, or shouting down some small child who has inadvertently ended a sentence with a preposition. I cannot think of any sleepless nights induced by worry about the rise of text speech. For the most part I am quite happy to live and let live on this matter.


But there is one exception, on which I feel I must stand firm and encourage you to do so as well. That is the importance of language in our public affairs.


You may remember a few weeks ago that the far-right Dutch MP named Geert Wilderz was turned away from entering the UK. The ban was imposed by the British Government, on the orders of the Home Secretary. Her instruction explained that he was not to be allowed into the country on the grounds that he would pose a security risk.


Later that day the Secretary of State for the Enviroment, Hilary Benn, happened to be taking questions here in York. One plucky audience member asked him to justify the government’s actions. He gave what I believe to be a truthful answer – the government just didn’t feel the kind of opinions this chap held were the kind of opinions we wanted in the UK.


That may have been a truthful answer, and one we can all respect even if we don’t agree with it. However, it placed the Home Secretary in a difficult position – why had she claimed there was a ‘security’ issue? I pressed Mr Benn on this, and he didn’t have an answer.


Of course, we know what the answer is. The Home Secretary knew that if she used the argument Benn used, about the wrong kind of opinions, then the Free Speech mafia would have given her all sorts of grief. If she used the security argument instead, the government would get its way and the critics would be silenced.


My history tutor tells me this is an example of Paradiastole – a greek word meaning to use language to make it sound like you’re talking about something else. Perhaps, though this is a poor example of the dangers surrounding loose language. A better one might be the language surrounding the intelligence supporting our invasion of Iraq, but I’m sure you can cobble that point together yourself.


There seems little doubt that in this matter I am fighting for the losing side of the battle, so it is probably ill-advised for me to spend the whole letter talking about it. There is just time, I think, for some reflection on the magnificent comic scene played out on the steps of the Royal Society last week.


The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, was getting out of his car to address an environmental conference. Just as he reached the steps of the building the minister was approached by a woman clutching what appeared to be a cup of coffee. Moments later the contents of that cup were found not to be coffee, but a thick green substance (journalists have postulated that it may have been custard, mushy peas or even guacamole).


It strikes me that the best protests – the most enjoyable for us onlookers – are never the most daring, or the most dramatic. Guacamole-gate (as surely this episode must be titled) had all the important ingredients: a family-friendly cause to promote, a universally distrusted politician, a television camera and pot of something green and sticky to the face.


Surely the plan could not fail?


The ever media-savvy Mandelson spotted the potential for an embarrassing photograph, and immediately turned away from the cameras. Thus he deprived the protestor, and indeed the rest of us, of a bit of light-relief in an otherwise depressing news-week.


Whatever we might think of Peter Mandelson, it is difficult in this instance to doubt his competence… whichever way you spell it.




One response

15 04 2009

“Clearly Mr Fry has ever attempted to play the guitar.”

That’d be ‘never’, then.

I was going to agree with you but that one single spelling mistake has ruined it for me and clearly invalidated your entire point.

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