Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Grammar peeves in government

Via Language Log: Grammar grouch elected speaker? Geoff Pullum just mentioned a Radio 4 report which said that John Bercow, newly-elected Speaker of the House of Commons, is given to objecting to the grammar of other MPs during their speeches. Mostly this is hearsay, that he does it "under his breath", but it also has happened openly. The most publicised such incident, on February 6th 2003, was ridiculed in a Roy Hattersley commentary piece, Snobbery and the split infinitive (Guardian, 10 February 2003). As Bercow didn't speak on this occasion, I can't find the context via Hansard (the official Parliamentary transcript), but a name search readily finds other examples:

Mr. Byers: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. As far as fuel is concerned, we know that the Conservative Government sought to dramatically increase the rate of VAT.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Do not split infinitives.
- 21st January 1999

Mr. Bercow: ... Paragraph 34 states:
It is not considered that it would be necessary to formally monitor the effectiveness of the regulation.
I shall not dwell on the split infinitive, but I point out that that observation is complacent and irresponsible.
- 18th December 2000

Mr. Fabricant: ... Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me again to say that there are but seven colours in the spectrum and that none of them are black—
Mr. Bercow: Is.
Mr. Fabricant: None of them are black. At least I have not split an infinitive—which I often do in speech, although not in writing—because I know that my hon. Friend would correct me for doing so.
- Standing Committee A, Tuesday 16 January 2001

Phil Hope: As a result, less children are truanting—
Mr. Bercow: Fewer!
Phil Hope: I accept the hon. Gentleman's grammatical correction and thank him very much for it. It is the only thing that he has got right all afternoon.
- 12 Feb 2003
The common factor of all these imagined corrections is that they serve no function in clarification - it's perfectly obvious what was meant - and concern "zombie rules" on the split infinitive, plural "none", and less vs. fewer. It's not even party-based disruption: Bercow does it to members of his own party. Hattersley describes it as language used as a "positional good": nitpicking shibboleths to demonstrate elevated status and condition, rather than communication.

A most ironic aspect to this is that Bercow does have a genuine interest in language for the purpose of communication, as head of the Bercow Review of Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) services compiled in 2007.
John is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties and has vigorously pursued special educational needs matters in parliamentary speeches and questions. John is Vice-President of AFASIC, a charity which promotes understanding, acceptance, equal opportunities and the inclusion into society of children and young adults with speech and language impairments.
All this is presumably underpinned by current best practice in linguistics, so it's a pity to see someone in such a major role in a language-based project subscribing to the most trite of saloon-bar grammar peeves.

It would be unfair to single out John Bercow as sole offender. A search of Hansard for phrases such as "split infinitive" finds many more examples, such as the House of Lords discussion of the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill in 2003, where David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) waits through a whole concluding speech to tell Mr Hawkins that he split an infinitive in "I want to genuinely thank the new Minister". Or Ann Winterton, regarding an MOD statement on Counter-Insurgency (Iraq/Afghanistan): "In spite of the two split infinitives, I heartily support that statement". Or Lord Renton on 19 Jan 1995: "I regret to say that I cannot support my noble friend's amendment, not only because it contains a rather long split infinitive, with the insertion of no fewer than seven words...".

The general pompous verbosity of parliamentary discourse is depressing at the best of times, but this is especially timewasting. As with online grammar flaming, probably the best response is not to rise to it, but it's refreshing to see some plain old sense from David Heath (Somerton and Frome):
Mr. Clarke: Following the very logical arguments that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is putting to the House, I wonder whether he would agree that my constituents in Coatbridge and Chryston would find it very unusual if their Member gave support to an amendment that includes a split infinitive: "to properly control". Given the excellent Scottish education system, they would have some reservations about that as well, would they not?

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, who has clearly had the benefit of an excellent Scottish education. I shall not go too far down the road of parsing the clause in question, but I have a difference with the right hon. Gentleman about the appropriateness or otherwise of the split infinitive. The split infinitive was commonly used in the authorised version of the Bible, and historically. It is only a Victorian invention that equated the English infinitive with the Latin infinitive, which of course could not be split because it was incorporated in a single word.
- Hansard, Private Hire Vehicles (Carriage of Guide Dogs etc.), 19 Jul 2002
- Ray


  1. I have to confess to a measure of hypocrisy in this sort of area.

    To [casually] split an infinitive bothers me not. There are, however, other transgressions which I find painful.

    Even while [genuinely] feeling the pain, however, I [simultaneously] applaud the evolution of language along "as she is spoke" lines – which is where the real hypocrisy shows itself, since I am applauding what I also wince at...

  2. Tony Bliar, liar

    She who must be obeyed grammatically has given me the occasional lip for infringing the Berco code of good-speak, but her greatest ire is reserved for T-speak - tautology, that is.

    Forget going to war on the basis of a dodgy dossier; who could trust a leader whose speeches told us 'the reason why' we 'reverted back', to mention just two of his favourite Ts.

  3. I am not sure of the reason for a ban on split infinitives. Hattersly in his column quotes Cobbett in saying that the rules of English arise from "pure logic." I suspect they have more to do with precision, that is, efficiency of communication. On this note, I would appreciate your thoughts at some time on the invasion of the text messaging style into normal discourse and if you think that this presages a sea change in overall style. Perhaps our 20th century English will be the King's English of 2020.

  4. Dr C: I am not sure of the reason for a ban on split infinitives. Hattersly in his column quotes Cobbett in saying that the rules of English arise from "pure logic."

    The standard explanation is that post-1600s linguists (and other commentators) were rather fazed by English. Latin and Ancient Greek had proved to have tight consistent grammars, but when scholars looked at English they found it far more disorderly. Understandably, they thought it must have decayed from something more orderly, and tried to impose order - typically with rules borrowed from Latin constructs - and seeing the "split infinitive" as a problem was one such issue.

    I don't think Cobbett is to be rated very highly: he wasn't a linguist, just a self-educated pundit expressing his personal prejudices about language. His "Specimens of False Grammar" has a particular downer on Dr Johnson's writing in The Rambler, which seems a pretty pointless and subjective attack on the idiom of 70 years previously.

  5. Felix: yeah, I have a similar tension. I'm a strong descriptivist, but it's hard not to form dislikes. In part, descriptivism is something that isn't terribly instinctive: we both, I'm sure, we're brought up with prescriptivism, where a standard accusation was "bad grammar" (actually generally little to do with grammar as such, but reflected a dustbin of prejudices about vocabulary, idiom, regional accent and pronunciation). Language Log is pretty good on this issue, and regularly tackles the point of how descriptivism doesn't require a belief that "anything goes". My pet hates are rarely anything to do with genuine lack of facility in English (I have relatives that write like Molly Bloom) and mostly to do with middle-class pretensions: people whose English is generally nothing to write home about in terms of vigour, originality, clarity and interest, but who think obeying a handful of superficial rules separates them from the oiks.

  6. T-speak - tautology ... 'the reason why' we 'reverted back'

    I finally got around to a corpus check; both are very long-standing idiom in even the most formal English. See Google Books: "the reason why" (17th century, 18th century, 19th century); and "reverted back" (18th century, 19th century).

  7. Harking back to my self-denunciation for hypocrisy, above ... I, myself, personally, speaking for me alone, find that I fell annoyance at tautology in direct disproportion to my dislike of the speaker.

    In those I like, I don't notice it. In those I intensely dislike, it sets my teeth on edge...