Since Jonathan Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, two centuries of self-appointed correctors and improvers of English usage – such as Robert Lowth, HW Fowler, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss, and Neville Gwynne – have decried the decadent state of our language and instructed people on how to use it better. But what have they accomplished?
They have helped enforce agreement that there should be a standard version of the language. They have not, however, managed to set the exact details of that standard. They have not even agreed whether long words or short ones are better (in spite of some vehement pronouncements on the subject). And the stream of the language has flowed on despite the damning practices prescribed by grammar doctors in the 1700s and 1800s that often look old-fashioned or bizarre now : no one writes snatcht, checkt, or snapt : no one uses colons as I am doing in this sentence.
Before 1754, if someone had wanted to express ‘the fortuitous discovery of something by chance’, he or she would have had to dip his or her nib more than a few times to eke out the full slog of such a cumbersome sentiment. Read more