Truly incompetent English



Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a falling linguistic sky. But I must admit that occasionally a text comes along that tests my faith. One was a political leaflet, recently distributed in the deliciously named towns of Frome and Mendip, which made national news in Britain for its syntactic incompetence (see a scan of it here, annotated in red by an outraged English teacher). Three sample sentences:

We both feel really strongly that parking charges are too high in Frome and its killing the Town center that was our motivation and hundreds of shopper complaining to us about charges.

The its should be it’s (even Microsoft Word’s grammar-checking caught that). The flagrant run-on should have been avoided by starting a new sentence after Town center (which under British spelling conventions should have been town centre). Word doesn’t even spot the starkly ungrammatical noun phrase hundreds of shopper.

Derek said we have found further money at Mendip that we feel we can get an even better deal and secure this free parking in perpetually that will be negotiated once the initial 25 years have been completed.

Perpetually is a slip for perpetuity, and a peculiarly countersyntactic one (we cry out for a noun and we are served up an adverb). The clause beginning that we feel has no grammatical role: It’s neither a content clause (as in We’ve decided that we feel optimistic) nor a relative clause (as in a deal that we feel OK about). And is the clause beginning that will be negotiated supposed to be a relative clause modifying deal? I don’t know. The whole sentence is uninterpretable.

Sharon has come up with some awesome ideas in her 4 years at Mendip and has many more to come it’s been a pleasure to having the opportunity to work with Sharon and she has my full support on this.

A new sentence should have begun after many more to come. And notice the disastrous failure to decide between an infinitival complement (a pleasure to have the opportunity) and a gerund-participial one a pleasure having the opportunity).

Almost every sentence in the leaflet has some kind of plangent grammatical error. What is one to make of the fact that it was nonetheless published and distributed?

British politics junkies would make much of the fact that the local councilors involved belong to the United Kingdom Independence Party (which I have mentioned before). Founded on the belief that membership in the European Union robs Britain of sovereignty, UKIP gets stereotyped in the media as a mob of xenophobic lowbrow beer-swillers for whom the Conservative Party isn’t anti-immigrant enough. (Since 76 percent of the British public think immigration should be curtailed, UKIP is doing rather well in the polls. The Conservatives are sending encouragingly friendly dog-whistles.)

But the UKIP link hardly suffices to explain syntax this bad. Your ability to modify a noun with a relative clause shouldn’t be crippled by the fact that you worry about Romanian criminal gangs or believe that net inflows exceeding a quarter of a million per year are too high.

The flier is a rather extreme case of syntactic bungling, but not a sign that UKIP voters are linguistically retarded. We should keep in mind the following:

  • We all make mistakes, some more than others;
  • writing is harder than speaking;
  • local councilors in rural market towns aren’t tested for composition skills;
  • election fliers are composed hastily under deadline-induced stress;
  • Microsoft Word’s grammar-checking assistance is nugatory;
  • candidates have to rely on either volunteers or their own critical acumen; and
  • some folk are too busy to find even two minutes to read over their drafts. (I hate to even mention this, but we academics occasionally encounter such folk even among our own much-loved students.)

So blush at the grammar of the unfortunate flier and pass on quickly. Your prose too, if subjected to really close analysis, would turn out to contain at least some unintentional syntactic slips. Mine too.

I said above that merely being a typical UKIP supporter couldn’t possibly account for grammar this bad. One thing that could, though, would be outright sabotage. See the first comment below, where Barrie England points out that the councilor who is alleged to have released the flier claims to be the victim of a dirty trick by a rival party (Barrie cites this ITV news report). Just when you think the British election campaign can’t sink any lower, down it goes! The Scottish National Party are being accused of everything short of actual satanism; Ed Miliband has been accused of fratricide for accepting a leadership role that his brother could have had; and now a dirty tricks campaign? I’m shocked. Shocked