The Queen's English Society (QES), mentioned only a couple of times here on Language Log over the past few years, is no more. It has ceased to be. On the last day of this month they will ring down the curtain and it will join the choir invisible. It will be an ex-society. Said Rhea Williams, chairman of QES, in a letter to the membership of which I have seen a facsimile copy:
At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. Three members had sent their apologies. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus!
Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30th June 2012
(Quest is the society's magazine.) Is this a sad day for defenders of English? Not in my view. I don't think it was a serious enterprise at all. I don't think the members cared about what they said they cared about. And I will present linguistic evidence for this thesis.
First, let's look at the seven sentences of the letter above in the light of the usual kind of judgmental prescriptivism that the members of QES always purported to care about (and keep in mind here that in some cases I am applying what prescriptive authorities generally say, not endorsing it):
- At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. [The existential construction ("there is/are/was/were") is condemned by Strunk and White (page 18) as weak writing, to be avoided.]
- Three members had sent their apologies. [Not clear why "had" is included to make a past perfect where a preterite would have been perfectly correct and appropriate. Omit needless words!]
- Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus! [This is a fragment: it has no main verb.]
- Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. [This is an agentless passive, condemned by Strunk and by Orwell and by writing tutors and prescriptivists everywhere.]
- Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. [This is also evasive about agency: who sent out the request?]
- So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. [This begins with a "conjunction".]
- There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. [Ungrammatical because of punctuation: a comma or semicolon is needed after "Quest". And as a magazine title, Quest should properly have been italicized. The last clause is another agency-avoiding passive.]
- The effective date will be 30th June 2012 [Ungrammatical because of punctuation again: the final period has been carelessly omitted.]
I repeat that I am not endorsing the stuff about how the existential and passive constructions are always bad, you should never begin a sentence with a "conjunction", and so on: a lot of such advice is mindless overkill (because some people have occasionally used the passive evasively, everyone should be told not to use passives at all). But even if you ignore all the stupid stuff, the last two sentences really are genuinely ungrammatical for perfectly clear reasons. Isn't this a surprisingly bad piece of writing to be sent out to the entire membership of a society devoted to grammatical nitpicking, and to be released to the press?
I turned to the web site of QES to remind myself of their activities, and stared at this amazingly incompetent paragraph at the top of the home page (as of early June 2012):
The Queen's English Society is neither a museum nor is it a preservation Society. These are but two of the myths promulgated by our detractors. The 'anti brigade', are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves, but appear to be against others who strive to achieve. They seemingly have no knowledge of why the QES exists and what we seek to do. They appear to actually believe that anyone can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely.
Again, every single sentence is badly written, either in terms of genuine grammatical rules or according to the dictates of the usual suspects in the prescriptivism industry:
- The Queen's English Society is neither a museum nor is it a preservation Society. [Malformed coordination: "is neither A nor is it B" is quite common, but is generally taken to be an error for "is neither A nor B", and usage books warn against such constructions.]
- These are but two of the myths promulgated by our detractors. [The subordinate clause is yet another passive.]
- The 'anti brigade', are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves, but appear to be against others who strive to achieve. [Clear ungrammaticality in punctuation: the comma after brigade is between subject and verb. In addition, there is a puzzling coordinate structure that I cannot understand. The verb phrase "appear to be against others who strive to achieve" is preceded by "but", in its coordinator role; but what is the first coordinate? If it is "are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves", then "but" doesn't make sense. If it is meant to be "often quite well educated themselves", then the structure is ungrammatical, because the first coordinate has no verb.]
- They seemingly have no knowledge of why the QES exists and what we seek to do. [This seems to have an "and" where we need an "or". The claim is surely that the anti brigade have no knowledge of either X or Y, not that they have no knowledge of X and Y, considered conjointly. And surely Orwell or White would have insisted that have no knowledge of is wordy officialese for do not know or are ignorant of.]
- They appear to actually believe that anyone can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely. [This has a split infinitive, which is an eyebrow-raiser, but it also has a genuine mistake: "anyone" should be "someone". They are saying "No one can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely, but the anti brigade appear not to believe this."]
Again, don't interpret me as believing that split infinitives are wrong: They are not, and never have been. The prejudice against them is ridiculous. But the belief that they are a grammatical awkwardness or ugliness that ought to be avoided wherever possible is widespread among the sort of people who belonged to QES, so the appearance of an example of it in this context surprises me. I thought these were the sort of people who loved to jump on split infinitives in other people's writing, and studiously avoid them in their own writing. But even if we ignore the split infinitive and so forth, there are genuine errors too.
And we're not just talking about one or two accidental slips that I managed to find after reading thousands of words. I haven't gone further than the first paragraph of their home page yet. When I turn to the second paragraph I see this:
The QES is by nature a prescriptivist organisation, because to adopt a wholly descriptivist approach, would render our existence to be meaningless.
Again, there is a comma (after approach) between the subject and the predicate in a short, simple, declarative clause. That was grammatical in the 18th century, but by the 20th it was very definitely not.
After the sentence just quoted, they suddenly lose the plot altogether, and say:
Put very simply, we refuse as a nation to adopt the word 'sidewalk' when there is already a perfectly good word — pavement, nicely settled in our language.
So now it's nothing to do with Standard English, it's about United Kingdom nationalism and a war (in defiance of the special relationship) against using familiar American nouns? This kind of jingoism has nothing to do with correctness. Sidewalk is a fully correct and well known Standard English noun, mostly limited to the American variety of the language. It is utterly presumptuous to assert that the UK is not going to adopt it. Britons never, never shall be slaves, lexically or politically. Pavement happens to have a rather dangerous transdialectal ambiguity, because in the USA it refers to the bit of the road where the trucks are. So we'll refer to either keeping lorries off the pavement or to keeping trucks off the sidewalk, as and when we think it appropriate. We'll adopt such American nouns as we damn well please, OK?
And, returning to my theme, let me just point out that the QES sentence quoted in the foregoing paragraph is, once again, ungrammatical in its punctuation: the dash should be matched by a second dash, not a comma, and pavement needs quotation marks (correct version: . . . there is already a perfectly good word — 'pavement' — nicely settled in our language).
Browsing just a little bit more on the QES site, I read the following astonishingly inaccurate stereotype of my profession in an FAQ page:
The Society prefers the prescriptive approach to the descriptive approach, as we do not want the language to lose its fine or major distinctions. We believe that descriptive linguistics, which declares anything anybody said or wrote to be 'correct' caters to mass ignorance under the supposed aegis of democracy and political correctness.
The cartoon depiction of linguists here is outrageous: I have no desire to see distinctions lost, and (of course) I have never declared that "anything anybody said or wrote" is correct. I have frequently stressed the opposite. Of course native speakers make mistakes. But put aside the absurd substance, and look at the form: that second sentence is ungrammatical, because the comma before the supplementary relative clause (descriptive linguistics, which declares . . .) lacks the matching one that should mark the end of the clause (there should be a second comma before the main clause verb caters; here there must be a comma between the subject and the main verb, but only because supplementary relatives have to be comma-marked at each end).
These people cannot competently punctuate their sentences according to the standard rules. Why were we supposed to take them seriously as guardians of our native language? Their writing looks tired, hasty, and careless. It's extraordinarily bad when judged by the sort of standards that one might expect an organization of educated professional people devoted to the protection of Standard English and education in its use.
How could the entire leadership of a society devoted to defense of the language have approved such passages of prose in their own publications? I think it is quite likely that most of them didn't even read it. It seems to me that Geoff Nunberg hit the nail on the head with this recent remark on Language Log about the sort of people who parade their grammar peeves in public:
You hear people saying that a misused hopefully or literally makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that—what it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.
That rings true. The QES members didn't really want to spend valuable spare time in meetings about how to promote English; they just wanted you to think they were the sort of people who might. Their own PR says they want to be a "recognised guardian of proper English" that will "strive to halt the decline in standards in its use", but they didn't care enough to write respectable error-free prose in society materials. I seem to care more about decent writing than they do, despite the caricature of descriptive linguists as anything-goes people who don't believe in either rules or style.
Their brain slip in suddenly announcing the struggle against sidewalk as their hallmark issue suggests an inability to identify their raison d'être, or to tell the serious from the trivial. (The idiotic Guardian news report by Lewis Smith reflects this confusion, muddling up the issue of defending Standard English grammar with random things like texting, slang, and non-standard London dialects. Newspaper reporting about language really is unspeakably brainless, but the QES must bear some responsibility if their mission was never really clear.)
The Queen's English Society was a passing whim for the sort of people who write harrumphing letters to the Daily Telegraph, superficial and silly from the start. It never had real missionary zeal, or a serious groundswell of linguistic or literary educated opinion behind it. Educational questions like how to encourage clarity in writing, and how to reduce the frequency of puzzlement due to genuine grammar errors, will have to await a more serious movement, and a more informed and committed group of people than this sloppy and ineffectual ex-group of soi-disant grammar guardians.
[I have monkeyed with the above text quite a bit after first hitting the Publish button at 3:47 a.m., and added several paragraphs as well. For the first six hours of its life at least, this post was a work in continual progress. —GKP, Wednesday 6 June 2012, 9:51 Eastern time]