Sunday Telegraph, January 2013

So here we are in yet another new year, and I have an especially trivial linguistic point to make. I feel it is time to take note of a lamentable development in written English, which I have decided to blame (mostly) on our effing word processing software, because that’s the kind of girl I am. The other day I received an email that included the oddly pidgin-type sentence: “It maybe time to act on this.” I puzzled over the grammar of this for quite a while. I tried saying it to myself in a Sitting Bull accent, but I felt that the natural grammar in that case would have been, “Maybe it time to act on this”, so I was still stumped. Did my correspondent merely mean to write, “It’s maybe time to act on this?” And then I realised that her computer – ever eager to stick its oar in – had perhaps spotted the word “may” contiguous with the word “be” (“It may be time to act on this”) and simply rectified the unnecessary space between the words. No sooner had I reached this conclusion than I realised that the true explanation might be even worse: my friend thought “maybe” was just a quicker and easier way of writing “may be” – and the English language as we know it was hereby doomed, and we might as well all go off and kill ourselves.

Has anyone else noticed this happening? The compound word has, of course, an honourable tradition, and we would be lost without it. In American English, it has long been standard to write, “You don’t love me anymore” or “Will you be free anyday soon?” British English, which is highly porous, has adopted this practice unthinkingly – and largely this is a harmless development, because “anymore” means precisely the same as “any more”. But there are many existing compound words (such as “maybe”) that have established themselves in the language already, and have quite specific uses. “Everyday” is a lovely adjective, meaning humdrum, ordinary or unremarkable. “Anyway” is a useful “sentence adverb” (I think), by means of which a writer can airily change the subject. “Throwaway” pertains to remarks uttered sotto voce; “Comedown” is quite interestingly related to “comeuppance”. (When I was a child, by the way, I heard the word “comeuppance” such a lot when we watched TV that I once lisped, “Will he get his uppings, mummy?” Needless to say, I never lived it down.)

So I think we should be vigilant. We need to be able to write:


“Is there any way you can do this?”

“I will love you every day of my life.”

“That was super natural, in my opinion.”

“I’ve got no body!”

“One self is better than two.”

“Can I have any one of these?”

“Let’s think about some times.”

And so on.


Obviously one hates to be a stick-in-the-mud about English. But occasionally it’s important to speak as you find. When I was deeply mired in linguistic debate a few years ago (for which I was seriously unqualified), it became clear to me that the academic study of the English language (and this includes the lexicographers) was entirely concerned with looking cool and broad-minded and “descriptive”, when what was required was some positive action to remedy literacy levels, and so on. A “descriptive” linguist is one that monitors the changes in language, and in case you think there is any other kind of linguist, there isn’t. “Prescriptive” does exist as a term in linguistic circles, but only as a powerful juju word used against bad people who model themselves on King Canute.

Ooh, I don’t usually rant, I’m sorry. But New Year seemed like a good opportunity to let rip for once. It does seem weird to me that we hear all the time about a crisis in literacy, and at the same time there are well-paid academics just sitting back and enjoying the show. Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.

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