A Mr Neville Denson of Cumbria wrote in with a complaint about the usage of Professor Sugata Mitra, who was in the news recently for saying that:
"This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now."Mr Denson objected to the phrases "very essential" and "a bit unnecessary" on the grounds that:
- Rise of text messaging ‘has made English lessons unnecessary,’ claims leading academic, Tom Foot, The Independent, 2 August 2013, www.independent.co.uk
I'm confused. When I was at school, admittedly a long time ago, the words "unnecessary" and "essential" did not need to be qualified.This looks a shining example of a couple of errors of prescriptivism. One is recency illusion: " the belief or impression that something is of recent origin when it is in fact long-established"; the other is belief in counterfactual rules that aren't supported by evidence of educated usage.
Now, it seems, things have changed. I accept that a living language will change, but I worry when a professor ... tells us he finds grammar and spelling were "very essential" a hundred years ago but are now "a bit unnecessary".
Perhaps essential no longer means essential, and unnecessary no longer means unnecessary ...[remainder snipped]
- Neville Denson, St Bees, Cumbria, i, 5 August 2013, #840
Take "very essential" first. A look at Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows normalised frequency of print use, shows that it's certainly not new. The earliest example I can find in Google Books is 1612 (in A Discussion of the Answere of M. William Barlow, D. of Diuinity, to the Booke Intituled: the Iudgement of a Catholike Englishman Liuing in Banishment for His Religion &c. Concerning the Apology of the New Oath of Allegiance. Written by the R. Father, F. Robert Persons of the Society of Iesus - page 21).
The overall pattern is that its print use peaked around 1780-1820, then has continuously declined ever since. Unless Mr Denson went to school in the early 1600s, the idea that it's new is a clear case of recency illusion.
|very essential, UK English 1600-2000 - click to enlarge|
- "... a pupa, probably differing in no very essential respect from the pupa of other cirripedes "- Charles Darwin
- "Another circumstance very essential for her to know ..." - Jane Austen
- "... whose names, quality, and experience, were very essential to the success of the undertaking ..." - Oliver Goldsmith
- "Margaret was not yet mistress of two very essential qualifications ..." - Elizabeth Missing Sewell
- "... and told her such particulars as are very essential to the good of the family ..." - Daniel Defoe
- "... a ceremony, no doubt, very essential to discipline ..." - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
"... I do hold it very essential that the family with which you connect yourself ..." - Charles Dickens
- "... it is a very essential part of it" - Virginia Woolf.
In both cases, Mr Denson's objection looks to be a close variant on the belief - one that unfortunately has taken root in ESL teaching - that 'extreme adjectives' aren't gradable (for instance, the idea that you can't say "very ancient", because extremity of age is already inherent in "ancient"). But as with that supposed rule - see Very extreme adjectives - there appears to be no evidence in educated usage of anything being wrong with applying modifiers to "essential" and "unnecessary".