Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Politicians, mind your language


STEPHEN Flynn, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, is a tough listen at the best of times but last week he added another dimension to the pain he inflicts on his audience. Along with the standard protestations of outrage about the contemptuous treatment of Scotland and the SNP, he so corrupted the language in his address to Speaker Hoyle as to make anyone who cares about correct grammar and appropriate word choice wince.

This is what he said: ‘I will take significant convincing that your position is not now intolerable.’

Where to start? The awkward collocation ‘significant convincing’, the double negative ‘not now intolerable’, or the word choice error, surely ‘untenable’?

As an English teacher I would strike out this sentence and ask my students to start again. Flynn is not an English language student. He is a high-ranking member of the UK’s third-largest party. Worse, he presumably composed this beforehand and probably ran it past a few colleagues too. Yet no one, it appears, noticed or objected.

Examples of degraded language use by our elected representatives are so frequent now that a political speech without some clanger is a rarity. I have become a bit of a student of the phenomenon, and would cite the most frequent errors and inappropriacies to be incorrect use of the word ‘literally’ (‘The government has literally buried its head in the sand’), flouting/ignorance of the rules for countable and uncountable nouns (fewer dogs, less water), and the wrong choice of word (tenable/tolerable, etc).

I would further argue that there seems to be a correlation between the pomposity of the speaker and the degree of error, and at the risk of making myself a marked man in my native country, a particular prevalence of poor English north of the border. As supporting evidence to Flynn’s faulty tirade, I cite Alex Salmond’s invention of the word ‘dimunition’ in a speech in Holyrood and MSP Kaukab Stewart’s bizarre rap/poem which would have shamed a Primary 1 pupil. If that’s not enough, here’s Humza Yousaf’s error-strewn inaugural speech as First Minister – if you can stand it.

Disappointingly, the misuse of language by politicians is only occasionally amusing (‘No one is the suppository of all wisdom’ – Tony Abbott). Mostly the slips are just grating and mildly dispiriting.

I once heard a cabinet minister excitedly boasting of the ‘very unique’ achievements of her department. It struck a discordant note and left me feeling slightly depressed because I realised that most people no longer care about the correct use of language, and for those few who do there is little that can be done. People refrain from pointing out errors for fear of being labelled a pedant. Who can blame them? The majority of teachers have given up. The focus is all on ‘communication’ and ‘not disrupting the flow’ these days. Handily, this ‘progressive’ attitude cuts down considerably on the marking and feedback.  

It is a long time since the authorities attempted to take a stand. In 2008/9 the Commons Public Administration Select Committee addressed the issue of the poor command of English and overuse of jargon in parliament. The report proposed that bad language be treated as a form of ‘maladministration’. Committee chairman Tony Wright said: ‘Good government requires good language, while bad language is a sign of poor government.’

There is no evidence that the report did any good. Indeed, things have got worse, and it now appears that accurate use of language is positively discouraged in some quarters. Take the example of Angela Rayner, deputy prime minister in waiting. She is known, amongst other things, for this anti-Tory rant at a 2021 Labour Party Conference event: ‘We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute pile of banana republic, vile, nasty, Etonian, posh . . . piece of scum.’ 

Rayner refused to apologise. She has also actively prevented Hansard from tidying up her, shall we say, unorthodox use of language in the House of Commons. ‘The reporters for Hansard have a bit of a nightmare sometimes transcribing the way I speak in Parliament into their house style,’ she said. ‘But I don’t compromise on it – because it’s who I am.’

Rayner has made poor grammar and blunt ‘street language’ part of her brand, a way of distinguishing herself from the posh boys and girls and ingratiating herself with what she obviously regards as her semi-literate base. Apart from anything else, this is an insult. And plain wrong: as Alan Bennett pointed out at the time, Victoria Wood’s meticulously well-spoken handyman Stan in dinnerladies was a northern archetype and testament to the respect afforded proper usage of language by older northerners.

It is not elitist to criticise poor English. It is essential. Yes, we all make slips, but errors unchecked multiply and lead to a degraded discourse. If you accept low standards of English you will doubtless accept a low standard of thought. Concepts inaccurately expressed will be imperfectly understood, and we will be unable to grasp what policies are being imposed on us if the details are obscured in a cloud of tortured syntax, faulty grammar and inappropriate vocabulary.

Which is all, frankly, intolerable.

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