This article was first published in Scottish Review on Wednesday 29 September 2010.
There is no better essay writer at work in Britain today than Clive James. Don’t just take my word for it; the New Statesman thinks so as well. In the marvellous ‘Insult to the Language’, one of the latest collection of gems, James argues that of all the English-speaking countries in the world, Britain, ironically, is the one in which the English language itself is deteriorating most rapidly. Blaming this accelerating decline on the failure of the school system to teach grammar, he goes even further by suggesting that we now have a generation of teachers in our schools who are themselves ill-equipped to rectify the problem. This contention would seem to be borne out by a recent HMIE report here in Scotland, which highlighted the fact that not only are most teachers uncomfortable with the notion of teaching literacy skills, many of them have little confidence in their own language. James puts it more bluntly: ‘Even when they are ready to admit there might be a problem, few of them realise that they lack the language to describe it.’ As evidence for the prosecution case, he cites the inability of otherwise apparently well-educated users to adhere to the ‘third-person rule’ for verbs in the present tense. You know it, the one which states that singular subjects take singular verbs and plural subjects take plural verbs. Of course you did.
I had no sooner finished reading the essay when I switched on Reporting Scotland, the BBC’s ‘regional’ news programme, just in time to hear the lead presenter deliver in rightly serious tones, ‘One in nine primary schools in Scotland are under half full, according to figures obtained by the BBC.’ Shortly afterwards, over on Channel 4, in Location, Location (I know, I know, but it was all in the name of research) one of the financially-wealthy but culturally-poor house hunters, having been shown a range of houses by the increasingly faux-frustrated presenters, sighed, ‘None of them are perfect.’ Later in the evening, I followed an interesting lead on Twitter, to the website of an American literacy agency which was offering help to struggling teachers, parents and students, because in their own words, ‘One in four secondary students are unable to read and comprehend the material in textbooks.’ It isn’t exactly a scientific study, but if that small, random sample is anything to go by, James clearly has a point, and we have a major problem. Or do we?
According to David Crystal, one of the country’s foremost linguistic theorists, there are three kinds of ‘concord’, which was the formal term for agreement of subject and verb back in the day. ‘Grammatical concord’ occurs when elements formally agree with each other, so would be the one favoured in all cases by traditionalists. ‘Notional concord’ occurs when the verb agrees with the singular or plural meaning of the subject, regardless of any grammatical marker (in ‘two miles is a long way’ the verb is singular because two miles is viewed as a single entity). ‘Concord of proximity’ occurs when the verb agrees with the number of a nearby noun, rather than with the real subject, as in ‘no one except his friends agree with him’. Crystal goes on to say, and this is where he is at his most helpful, ‘People are uncertain about concord. Traditional grammars insist on grammatical concord, but usage often favours notional concord. Concord of proximity is common in spontaneous speech, but is condemned in writing. Usage is particularly divided over none – in ‘none of the pens is/are on the table’ the plural concord is more frequently used but the older tradition insists on the singular.’
Arguably, if Crystal’s analysis is to be our yardstick – and who are we to say otherwise – the petulant house buyer’s grammatical inexactitude is nothing more than a shift in the language as a result of popular usage, but the BBC presenter’s mistake is more likely the result of ignorance, which should be more of a concern to all of us, because the fact of the matter is that most of us learn our awareness of the rules of grammar from what we hear rather than what we read, and most of what we hear comes from television. None of this would matter of course, if you subscribe to what James calls ‘the anti-educational orthodoxy by which expression counts above precision’. It matters a great deal, however, if, like him, you believe that ‘beyond a certain point – and the point is reached early – precision is what expressiveness depends on.’