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Grammar Gripes

Gabriel Roberts

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In an ORbit last week, Calum Mechie reflected on the lasting power of George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English language’ to raise hackles and foment contention. Orwell’s criticism of changes in English usage divides readers into those who see it as reactionary and those who see it as a defence of proper English. Where Orwell writes of ‘the decline of a language’, his opponents may denounce anyone who believes in such standards; where Orwell writes of ‘the fight against bad English’, his supporters may wring their hands at the current state of political correctness.

But generalisations are misleading. Rather than rhapsodising on the beauties of diversity or launching into conservative jeremiads, we must surely judge each innovation on its merits, albeit allowing that its popularity with other people will have a bearing on whether we adopt it. Judgements of this kind are not inherently wrong-headed, but a part of how a language develops.

With that in mind, let me indulge a pair of gripes. The first is the use of a comma before the word ‘and’. We haven’t yet reached such hideous extremes as ‘fish, and chips’ and ‘salt, and pepper’, but we seem to be going that way. The Guardian asked this week, ‘When have you been at your most adventurous with food, and how have your tastes changed over time?’ The Times reported that ‘disadvantaged pupils do have high aspirations, but find it problematic to fulfil them, and often give up’. In neither of these cases does the comma serve a grammatical function. Instead it marks a pause, which adds emphasis to the end of sentence. It’s hard to know what’s driving this trend (the desire to fill our writing with suspenseful silences?), but it may involve an analogy between spoken and written English. The comma marks a pause that we would acknowledge if we were reading aloud.

The second is the much-debated use of ‘reference’ as a verb. This is not a recent innovation (the OED dates it to 1957 and it gained ground in American English in the 1970s), but it seems to be becoming more prevalent, much as the use of ‘quote’ as a noun has gained ground against ‘quotation’. But the use of ‘reference’ as a verb is a tricky one, both because ‘reference’ as a noun is derived from the verb ‘to refer’ and because ‘to reference’ and ‘to refer’ don’t mean quite the same thing. To say that the film Hot Fuzz ‘references’ scores of action films is to say that it quotes them visually or makes allusions which can be ticked off by the viewer. To say that it ‘referred’ to scores of action films would be to say something different, that it actually pointed or directed our attention to them. But though ‘reference’ may mean something different from ‘refer’, and something perhaps which reflects the hyper-referentiality of contemporary art, this comes at the cost of precision. To speak of an artwork ‘referencing’ things smudges distinctions between allusion, quotation, similarity, borrowing, and homage—to name but a few. These are distinctions we would do well to preserve.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College. He is a copy editor at the Oxonian Review.

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