War of words

War of words

A CHANGE IS GONNA COME: Nicholas Waters's book insists English must be allowed to evolve

THERE'S NO ONE QUITE LIKE GRAMMAR: Lynne Truss takes a zero

First published in News by

IT is a battle that's hotting up and affects us all. But which side are you on? Are you one of the self-confessed sticklers, pedants and proud of it, who see themselves as knights protecting our punctuation and grammar?

Or do you come down on the side of the modern brigade, ruthless guerrillas who say we should embrace the changes?

The way we use the English language is forever changing - check out Chaucer to prove that - but the advent of email and text messaging is forcing the pace.

The traditionalists' trenches were dug four years ago when Lynne Truss published her bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a "Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation".

Then Nicholas Waters, a Poole-born lecturer in contemporary English, published his own book called Eats, Roots and Leaves, which argues that if people understand the meaning then we have the right to use language as we see fit.

Both titles - Truss's refers to a panda's dietary habits and Waters first heard his version in a joke referring to the mating habits of the Australian male - change their meanings when the comma is excluded.

Lynne Truss's far from stuffy book is a rallying cry for "sticklers" whose pulses quicken at the sight of a greengrocer's sign advertising "potato's and carrots' for sale" or a supermarket notice over the checkout for "eight items or less" (grammatically, it should be "fewer").

"The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning," she writes, citing, this example: "A woman, without her man, is nothing. A woman: without her, man is nothing."

She fears punctuation is in for a "rocky time" with the impact of the internet, emails and text messages.

Nicholas Waters now lives in Norwich but was born in Plummer Road, Poole, where his father still lives, went to Poole Grammar and is an AFC Bournemouth supporter. He does not fear the evolution of punctuation and language but welcomes it.

His book, Eats, Roots and Leaves, - a second edition's due out on this weekend - is an attack on what he calls "grammar fascists" who set themselves up as the language police. His message: "Do not be afraid of change; embrace it."

Waters maintains that he planned his title before Lynne Truss's book came out and "I wasn't going to change it because Ms Truss got her book out before mine!"

Why did Waters, 49 and a lifelong AFC Bournemouth supporter, write his book?

"My wife Birgitta, along with many other teachers abroad, was taught English by grammar fascists who taught an old-style of stuffy language.

"They would not allow any deviation from what they saw as fit and proper English.

"This bothered me as not only were they denying the unique richness of possibilities of expression; they were often teaching a style of English that was formal and correct, but old-fashioned and awkward for contemporary communication."

In his book he writes: "The term grammar fascists covers a multitude of malcontents." He lists these as including: l The Apostropharians: who believe that the "biggest threat the society is the misplaced use of the genitive apostrophe."

l The Nuancers: dedicated to maintaining the historical difference between pairs of words like "to infer" and "to imply".

l The Little Englanders: who see invisible enemies massing off our sceptres isle by trying to introduce Americanisms and computer lingo such as "colors" and "programs" into Albion's English.

l The Fundamentalists who heap derision on anyone who deviates from what they see as acceptable grammar.

"There is one factor that unites grammar fascism," Waters writes. "Indignation."

So how is language is changing? Take the word "decimate". Writers to newspaper letters pages have frequently complained that it is wrongly used and "an army decimated" means one-tenth has been wiped out. Its modern usage, however, is to "damage very badly".

If people understand it, argues Waters, what's the problem?

The correct plural of stadium is stadia. but why not use stadiums if people recognise its meaning?

Americanisms may upset some but they become absorbed into our English. Charles Dickens, for example, disliked Americanisms like "reliable" and "healthy". Who objects to them today?

The battleground has been fought for years over territory including split infinitives ("to boldly go "); the ending of sentences with prepositions ("what are they getting stewed up about?"); to "who" or "whom" you should address your complaints; and whether it's right to put that apostrophe in "its".

And, of course, whether you should start a sentence with "and".

Waters, too, takes issue with the "apostropharians" over that notorious greengrocer's apostrophe, arguing that "tomato's" is right, not wrong, because the punctuation represents a missing letter ("e").

"English is a vibrant, living language and is thriving precisely because of its propensity to adapt to the ever-changing needs of society," he declares, in defiance of the sticklers.

He argues that if emails, texting and street slang mean young people have taken control of their language then what's the matter with that?

"A big up to them for not conforming," he says.

  • Eats Roots and Leaves by Nicholas Waters, International Waters, £7.99 (ISBN 1-905336-01-2)
  • Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, Profile Books £7.99

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