Fry on the pleasure of language

« previous post | next post »

After I saw a Youtube clip of British comedian and quiz show host Stephen Fry pedantically insisting that none requires a singular verb, I was sincerely disappointed that this intelligent man evinced exactly the kind of "linguistic martyrdom" that Thomas Lounsbury ridiculed a century ago in The Standard of Usage in English.

My spirits lifted when I saw another Youtube clip (via the Tensor) wherein Fry and his comedic partner Hugh Laurie hilariously hold forth on language:

For my money, "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers" trumps colorless green ideas sleeping furiously any day. And now comes more heartening evidence that Fry is a true language lover and no prescriptivist stick-in-the-mud. On his newly redesigned blog, The New Adventures of Mr Stephen Fry, he kicks things off with a wonderfully rambling post entitled "Don't Mind Your Language…". A choice excerpt follows below.

For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

Clearly Fry is Our Type of Fellow. As for the none episode, all is forgiven.

[Much later update: A spoken version of Fry's blog post, or at least a part of it, has been animated with some kinetic typography.]


  1. AMcguinn said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

    To be fair to Fry over the "none" thing, extreme pedantry is pretty much the point of QI. Charging at full speed into someone and knocking them flat is generally a stupid and unpleasant thing to do, but in certain restricted sporting contexts it becomes praiseworthy.

  2. Lisa said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    I love this text. I think it summarize the reason I study Linguistics. For all the fun that you can have playing with language.

  3. Tom Vinson said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    I might not be separating the two voices correctly, but about 45 seconds into the clip it sounds to me like Fry is saying, "Two doesn't work, so none works."
    I don't think he's being serious here.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    I do appreciate the "extreme pedantry" of QI (we recently discussed the show's humo(u)r here), but I think Fry was mostly serious in that clip. He even alludes to it in the blog post, saying none with a singular verb is something "the old pedantic me would have insisted on."

  5. Z. D. Smith said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

    I experienced a similar trajectory as you, Benjamin, on reading that post. I wrote a little something myself about it, here:

    Among other things, I said:

    That is a position that I have myself taken here at times, and I’m glad to hear it taken up in other places. I am, as my readers will know, not a linguist. I have a healthier-than-usual interest in the arts linguistic, and I think, a greater-than-average command of the facts and principles of the matter, but my interest and pleasure have always been more aesthetic than, say, the members of Language Log. And that’s sometimes a hard needle to thread. It seems like the bulk of aesthetic treatments of language tend towards the prescriptivist; that if one cares about and delights in the sound and substance of the stuff, in a way obviously inappropriate for academic study, then one tends much more often than not towards prescriptivism—towards a deep concern about the quality of one’s language, about its degradation, about its aesthetic quality and purity, and about its proper use.

  6. Leslie said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 7:57 pm

    Go Stephen! I'm a huge fan, though I was also a bit annoyed with that 'none' rant when I saw it, mostly because it reminded me of the arguments I'd had with an English friend (who's also a big Fry fan). I'm sending him the blog post as soon as I finish this comment. :-)

  7. Brandon said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

    British humor (or "humour?") is at its best when it's playing with the English language.

  8. HP said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

    One suspects that Stephen Fry was playing the pedant for comic effect in the first clip. Also, one is surprised, if one is American and was watching HBO in 80s and has not been exposed to much in the way of British quiz shows in the intervening decades, to discover that this is what has become of Rich Hall, even if one has only glimpsed him for a moment.

  9. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    "They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language?"

    DFW seemed to be one pendant bubbled and frothed and slobbered and creamed with joy at language.

  10. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 1:04 am

    I'm surprised that you originally missed the fact that Fry was joking about the "none" thing – that it was a parody of pedanticism rather than pedanticism itself – and I can only conclude that you've been spending too much time listening to pedants who are, despite being almost as comical, actually serious. Fortunately, unless there is something seriously wrong with your contract with Language Log, you are insured against adverse psychological effects of conversation with language pedants.

  11. Chris Clark said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 1:40 am

    That second clip is more along the lines of Private Eye's Pseuds Corner than anything positive about language. I'm fond of Fry, but I'm not sure this is so much a new appreciation of language he's showing as a general mellowing out that lasts up until you break one of the 'rules' that he hasn't gotten over yet – nice, but something to be as wary of as any Trussian recanting.

    Also, he says, 'Orwell famously suggested that language preceded thought, such that if the word ‘freedom’, for example, is removed from the dictionary, then the very idea of freedom will disappear with it be and be lost to humanity,' and I'm really, really unsure about that.

  12. Martin said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 3:32 am

    Poe's law: it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 3:37 am

    I will note here only that the expression "don't stick a bee in the mud!" appeared on only one page in the entire Google corpus — until today.

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 4:09 am

    So, for all of you who are convinced that Fry was merely parodying pedantry in the QI clip, would you say that his reference in the blog post to "the old pedantic me" (specifically alluding to singular none usage) is intended to be read as "the old parodic persona of pedantic me"?

    When Fry says that he's "outgrown that silly approach to language," I take him at his word that he's been de-pedanticized (even if his erstwhile pedantry was occasionally exaggerated for comic effect).

  15. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 5:39 am

    Well, OK, I didn't notice that sentence in my first reading of the post, and I'll grant that – as unintuitive as it may seem – he might in fact have been serious at the time. Or then again he might have been parodying his younger self. Either way, I can't imagine watching the "none" clip without thinking that he appears to be joking, and to think otherwise looks to me like an acquired cynicism. This doesn't change just because cynics are sometimes proven right.

  16. Laura Brown said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 9:17 am

    Fry makes some excellent points, but … would it be too prescriptivist of me to ask that he use a few more paragraph breaks?

  17. Spectre-7 said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    Quote:Fry makes some excellent points, but … would it be too prescriptivist of me to ask that he use a few more paragraph breaks?

    I don't think so… In order to be too prescriptivist over this matter, I believe you would need to state unequivocally that he is wrong in using so few breaks, decry his obvious lack of culture and education, and finally demand that he use more.

  18. Lindsay said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    While I'm no prescriptivist, the point seems to be forgotten among these comments that the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide is not between rigidly ordered language and freely wrought aesthetically engaging language, but rather between language bound and tied to rules and language from which the patterns and rules emerge. The descriptivist seeks to find the patterns that allow language to function as a vehicle for communication. To do so they implicitly acknowledge that there are in fact elements that further the comprehensibility of language and behaviors that obfuscate meaning, but not being a prescriptivist is still not a no holds barred abandon all meaning ye who enter here kind of thing.

  19. John Cowan said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

    Martin: Nay, say more: there is no parody, satire, or the like on any topic that will not be taken by 20% of the audience or more as entirely serious, and what's more, an attack on motherhood and apple pie. (I believe it was Robert Heinlein who said this.)

  20. David said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

    How reassuring to hear that the Fantastic Mr Fry is one of us.

    I find it however, slightly odd that he says:
    '“the aorist of ‘to see’ is ‘saw’'

    Is he right to use a term like this for the preterite?

  21. Tearlach said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 5:05 am

    That Steven Fry are one funny guy.

  22. Chris said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    A lovely essay. I would, however, like to heap a little more ridicule on the idea that language is the father of thought, because it nearly seemed that Fry was on the point of taking it seriously, and he really ought to know better.

    I had no idea what the word "aorist" meant until I saw it in that essay; does that mean I was unable to conjugate English verbs, or think about their past tenses?

    One of Richard Feynman's autobiographies recounts his flirtation with the idea that all his thought was verbal. One of his friends refuted it thus (dialogue reconstructed from memory):

    Friend: Do you know the funny shape of the crankshaft in a car?

    Feynman: Yeah, so?

    Friend: How did you describe it to yourself when you thought of it just now?

    It seems to me that the mere existence of the phrase je ne sais quoi is a testament to the ability to think about what we cannot describe. (And when English didn't have a similar phrase, we stole someone else's.)

    I support the reverse thesis: necessity is the mother of linguistic invention, just as it is the mother of other kinds of invention. When we needed a shorter way to say "send a text message to", "text" was verbed, in defiance (or perhaps disregard) of Watterson's famous observation that "verbing wierds language".

  23. ajay said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Also, he says, 'Orwell famously suggested that language preceded thought, such that if the word ‘freedom’, for example, is removed from the dictionary, then the very idea of freedom will disappear with it be and be lost to humanity,' and I'm really, really unsure about that.

    If you're really really unsure whether Orwell was right to say so – fair enough. But he did say pretty well exactly that, in the appendix to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" – one of the objectives of Newspeak was to eliminate undesirable words and meanings of words in order to suppress undesirable thoughts ("in as much as thought is dependent on language" – quite a caveat!)

    In his example, "equal" in Newspeak would mean only "physically equal" – and so "all mans is equal" would be a grammatical sentence in Newspeak, but one as obviously false as "all men are redhaired" in standard English. Of course all mans is not equal – some mans is tall, some is short, some is fat, some is unfat.

  24. Steve said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    Two points – first on 'none and singular verb': I teach English to foreigners, and since they always want an unambiguous rule, I usually tell them that 'none' is singular – along with 'nothing' (does anyone say 'nothing are'? – it sounds very strange to me) and also (and this I admit is certainly illogical) 'everything' and 'everyone'. But it is the apparent singularity of 'thing' and 'one' that makes the choice of a singular verb inevitable (at least for me), and there is much less inevitability about 'none'. I wouldn't correct 'none' with a plural verb in a student's work, and I certainly agree that is pedantic to insist on it.

    Secondly, on 'verbing weirds language' – well, it is certainly a bit weird to make a verb out of an adjective, as there, but the ease with which nouns can be transformed into verbs in English is one of the glories of the language, and is extremely characteristic of its greatest writer. Shakespeare is extremely fond of verbing – he doesn't use 'action' as a verb, but he certainly could have done, and, speaking personally, I 'bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy' at such wonderful coinings as Cleopatra's 'he words me, girls, he words me' or 'I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness i' the posture of a whore'.

  25. Steve said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

    Further to the above, while reflecting on other instances of 'verbing' in Shakespeare ('Out-Herods Herod' from Hamlet, 'Uncle me no uncle' from Richard II) I rememberde an example of Shakespeare verbing an adjective: 'proud me no prouds' from Romeo and Juliet. Of course the 'X me no X' snowclone is very common.

  26. James Kabala said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    My (otherwise rather prescriptive) grammatical training was that none took a singular when describing a singular thing ("None of the cake was left when I got up for a second slice.") and took a plural when describing a plural thing ("None of my friends were still there when I returned to the table.") Are there really large numbers of people who were taught differently?

  27. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    James Kabala: "My (otherwise rather prescriptive) grammatical training was that none took a singular when describing a singular thing … and took a plural when describing a plural thing …"

    First, your "grammatical training" was surely not where you learned how to use "none"; you were using the word for years before you got any explicit grammatical training. And the training you got would have been a matter of correction (backed up by an explicit rule), rather than some instruction in how to use a word you hadn't used before.

    So: plenty of people report having been corrected when they use "none" with a plural verb ("None of them were happy"), the corrector citing the rule that "none" is always singular. But were you (or other people) corrected for using "none" with a plural head but a singular verb ("None of them was happy"), the corrector citing the rule that "none" with a singular head has singular agreement, while "none" with a plural head has plural agreement?

    The point is that "rules", and the explicit teaching of them, come into it only when there are differences in practice and dispute over which practice is "correct". My guess is that you and the people you grew up with followed the practice of treating "none" as "transparent" (for the purpose of verb agreement) to the number of its head, and that some enlightened teacher defended this practice against the claim that "none" is always singular (MWDEU has a nice discussion of the history of this notion, which many people are passionately attached to).

    Transparent "none" is very widespread, though many speakers also allow singular agreement when the head is plural. In any case, transparent "none" is very attractive, because the semantically related modifiers "some" and "all" are transparent ("Some/All of the cake was eaten", but "Some/All of the cakes were eaten").

  28. James Kabala said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    I apologize for my loose use of "grammatical training."

    As for your more substantial point, my memories of my eighth-grade grammar book are vague, but I remember what you call the transparent form being taught as correct, and I don't remember the alternative's even being discussed. As far as I can recall, the book was otherwise quite traditional/prescriptivist (e.g., it would have objected to my saying "the alternative even being discussed" in the previous sentence). I'm not sure I ever heard anyone being "corrected" on the matter one way or the other, other than on a quiz or test associated with that particular lesson. I never heard the "not one" claim (although I can see the attempted logic behind it) until this thread.

  29. James Kabala said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

    To be consistent, I should have said "the transparent form's being discussed as correct." It's funny that I didn't notice that when I made a big deal of it in the other clause.

  30. Chris Clark said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 8:17 am

    If you're really really unsure whether Orwell was right to say so – fair enough. But he did say pretty well exactly that, in the appendix to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" – one of the objectives of Newspeak was to eliminate undesirable words and meanings of words in order to suppress undesirable thoughts ("in as much as thought is dependent on language" – quite a caveat!)

    It was the first I'm unsure about, but I'd note that Fry's gloss misses out the importance of the massive, century-long repression at a level of brutality unknown to us in creating it – removing a word from a dictionary itself is surely not enough even by Orwell's standards.

  31. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    Given the way he evidently feels about "none," I'm quite surprised to see "anyone who expresses themselves" in his blog post.

  32. Matt B. said,

    November 15, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

    The term "sound-sex" makes me think of "Monty Python." Particularly:

  33. Mark said,

    December 1, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

    He still, though, asserts that a pedant would insist upon none's being singular, when this is really the province of what he calls a "half educated loser". He seems to be recanting an attitude without noticing that he was technically wrong in the first place.

  34. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Fry's a good egg.

RSS feed for comments on this post