The Queen’s English Society

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I’ve been having run-ins with the Queen’s English Society since the early 1980s. Now they have raised their head again with the setting up of an English Academy, which the Society will run, and which is intended to be on a par with the French, Spanish and Italian Academies.

I’m all in favour of children being taught to write clear English, and even for them to be taught English grammar, but the question arises: what are the rules of English grammar which they should be taught?

The Queen’s English Society believes it knows the answer, but all the evidence I have is that its members each simply have their own prejudices. A former President, Godfrey Talbot – well-respected BBC journalist, by then long retired – gave a long speech at one of the Annual General Meetings of the Society in which he inveighed furiously against the intrusive ‘r’, all the while blissfully ignorant of the fact that he was constantly using it as he spoke. Others complain that the use of a double negative is “illogical”: “We ain’t got no tomatoes” is not usually misunderstood to mean “We have tomatoes”, and anyone whose response was “Good, I’ll take two pounds, please” would be likely to get an unwelcome answer! Spanish, meanwhile, regularly doubles the negative as reinforcement: “No hay nada” means “There’s nothing”. Does this make Spanish ‘illogical’? Language is not logical in a mathematical sense and cannot be made so.

The Queen’s English Society web site states “English is becoming corrupted in the age of mass communications, the text message, e-mail and the like”. Yet the society claims to accept that languages change through time: “English will evolve over time, but the QES exists to watch for and to resist changes that are detrimental to its impact and clarity”. I should be interested to know which changes its members see and hear happening today that they would consider not to be ‘detrimental’. The Appendix Probi, probably written in the 3rd century, gives a list of frequently mis-spelled Latin words (mis-spelled because ‘mispronounced’). The speakers of the day ignored these strictures and continued with their corrupt practices, until they created those well-known abominations of so-called language now known as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian …

King Canute knew that he could not turn the tide, and proved this to his courtiers at Bosham. Who will prove the futility of the Queen’s English Society’s efforts to its members?

14 Comments

  1. No doubt the Society members would cite works like Shakespeare and the King James Bible as the paragons of English style. Show them how different Shaksepeare’s English was from that of 100 years earlier, and how relatively little the language changed in, say, the 20th century.

  2. Surely they should call themselves the Cwenes Englisc society?

  3. Pingback: The Queens English Society deplores your impurities « Sentence first

  4. The post at “Sentence First” mentioned in the previous comment goes into the QES’s inconsistencies and prejudices much more fully than I have done.

  5. If the QES was really interested in helping more people to use English well, it would campaign for reducing the inconsistencies of English spelling which make learning to read and write exceptionally difficult (see http://www.EnglishSpellingProblems.co.uk). Because of them, 1 in 5 speakers of English dont even learn to read well and nearly half are extremely reluctant to write anything. This puts good use of English totally beyond their reach.

  6. “1 in 5 speakers of English dont even learn to read well and nearly half are extremely reluctant to write anything.” The subject here is “1″, a singular noun, so it takes a singular verb: “doesn’t”. If Masha Bell does not know that, what else does he or she not know?

    As for the “1 in 5 speakers of English”, since English is the national language of many Commonwealth countries and a national language in the USA and Eire as well as the UK’s own national language, which of these countries is included in the “1 in 5″? And at what ages?

    It could be the teachers’ fault.

  7. “1 in 5 speakers of English dont even learn to read well and nearly half are extremely reluctant to write anything.” The subject here is “1″, a singular noun, so it takes a singular verb: “doesn’t”. If Masha Bell does not know that, what else does he or she not know?

    As for the “1 in 5 speakers of English”, since English is the national language of many Commonwealth countries, and a national language in the USA and Eire as well as the UK’s own national language, which of these countries is included in the “1 in 5″? And at what ages?

    It could be the teachers’ or parents’ fault.

    As for simplifying spelling, since English is the most widespread international language, who is going to tell the world to change the spellings of countless words?
    And whose pronunciation will be used? Even in the UK, northerners take a “bath”, while southerners take a “barth”. Ova tu u, Masher.

    By the by in French -ai, -ais, -ait, -ez, -, -e, -s, et, est are all pronounced the same.

  8. How strange that in nearly every country there are so many people willing to criticize, but so few willing to do anything to help the situation.
    If nobody fights against it, there will be even more generations saying,
    “They was…..” and “I aint got no …..”

  9. @Michael Allen-Williams

    If only we’d had a Queen’s English Society in the Tudor era — then you would be saying “fighteth” instead of that Northern barbarism “fights”!

    Personally, I think everything started going downhill when we stopped speaking Proto-Indo-European.

  10. @Eric Hayman:

    You are merging two phonemes of French (at least of standard Parisian French as is traditionally taught, which is the only sort of French I would expect a good QES supporter to care about).

    In IPA, “et” is [e] and “est” is [?]. The vowel qualities are comparable, although far from identical, to those of English LATE and LET.

    Of your list, -ai, -ais, -ait, and est are usually pronounced [?], while -ez, -, -e, -s, and et are usually pronounced [e].

  11. We have set up a petition against the QES.
    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/queens-english-society-restraining-order/

    I was also setting-up (or up-setting!) of the Proper English Foundation, a superior organisation in every way and one which will settle all English questions to a far more satisfying degree.
    Eric! Well done on calling to our attention that
    1 in 5 dont even learn to read well.
    does not exist as a sentence! You are quite correct and it really is necessary to rephrase it, for otherwise we’d need to concentrate on what Masha actually said.
    I suppose there are some (bohemians) who would say that “don’t” and “doesn’t” fit equally well in this sentence, and that English-speakers today are slightly more free to choose and are less bound by superstitious dogma such as this. But, however, they are wrong! We need to find this one person who can’t spell and re-educate him.
    (Masha is a female name, by the way, and double-posts may be avoided by avoiding them. In any case, your grammar has made your argument unassailable :-) )

    As for spelling reform (a subject much more worthy of debate) I doubt that an overhaul of English spelling would succeed, but a few changes to the most irregularly-spelled words is overdue. (The typical example given is the difference in pronunciation between tough, though, through and thorough.)

  12. The Web-Master replied “You are merging two phonemes of French (at least of standard Parisian French as is traditionally taught, which is the only sort of French I would expect a good QES supporter to care about).”

    I really wonder how many English speakers are in a position to differentiate between various dialects of any foreign language, including French.

    To say that Parisian French “is the only sort of French I would expect a good QES supporter to care about” has more than a sniff of snobbishness about it. I have spoken my schoolboy French in various parts of France, in Belgium, and in half a dozen francophone African countries. Ditto my schoolboy German in Germany. At (Grammar) school, my Devonian English master would have been hard put to teach such minute sound variations as the “et” and “est” you posit.

    My other examples “-ai, -ais, -ait, -ez, -, -e, -s” were all taught as the “ay” in “hay”, and no doubt they all appear in song and verse as full rhymes.

    While I concede, in retrospect, the “et”, “est” difference may be true in “standard Parisian French”, what is the use of any “standard” dialect if it is not used by the hearer?

    Currently, BBC newsreaders are talking of something like “Ba-kh-rain” with one breath and “Pa-riss” with another. Chacun son got!

  13. To say that Parisian French is the only sort of French I would expect a good QES supporter to care about has more than a sniff of snobbishness about it.

    And the QES doesn’t? LOL!

    what is the use of any standard dialect if it is not used by the hearer?

    Maybe you should ask the QES that question.

  14. @eric hayman

    “1 in 5 speakers of English don’t…” is perfectly correct. 1 in 5 of several hundred million is undeniably a plural. Now you may have noticed I use the singular form “is” there. The reason for this is that, as I was writing, I was thinking about a large number which existed independently as the subject of the following verb, whereas when Miss Bell typed her response she was thinking of millions of individuals who were the subject(s) of the following verb.

    Your kind of nit-picking pedanterasty* is exactly the reason we should be grateful we don’t have an academy dictating how we should speak, but an army of enthusiasts who listen, take notes, then say “how interesting”. I’ll take the jovial indulgent uncles of the OED over the hypocritical, pompous Victorian dads of the Academie Franaise any day of the week.

    *I also thank God we are able to make up words when we think they sound cool, and are applauded for our inventiveness rather than greeted with howls of outrage from a stuffed shirt nailed to a Second Empire chair.

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