The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

RIP: The Queen's English

Logomachia (n.):  A war over words

The Queen’s English Society has died at the age of 40.  The goals of the QES were…

“…to improve standards of English, to encourage people to know more about our wonderful language…to use it more effectively and to enjoy it more… [to] become the recognised guardian of proper English…to halt the decline in standards in its use.”

And now the Queen will have to manage—somehow—without the Society’s help.

The immediate cause of death was member apathy.  At the Society’s annual meeting in April Chairwoman Rhea Williams told the 22 members present that the organization and its magazine, Quest, would close on June 30, 2012:  “Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role.  So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist.”

The Queen’s English Society does have some accomplishments to show for its four decades of service to the language.  One newspaper, the Independent, credited the QES with influencing the way English grammar, spelling, and punctuation are now taught in the British national school system. 

Predictably, different people interpret the Society’s demise in different ways.  One view, typified by a headline in another newspaper, the National, is that the Internet has killed proper English: “The Queen's English Is, Like, Literally Over. LOL” 

A related view is that plummeting standards have led to a world in which proper English is simply obsolete.  Williams, the QES chairwoman, seems to be in this camp. “People today just don’t care,” she said in one interview.  You can practically hear the sigh of discouragement.

There are those who think the Vandals have battered down the gates of Rome.  In the Scotsman Gerald Warner wrote, “The commanding heights of the so-called establishment have long since been captured by the forces of barbarism.”

On the other hand, some say that losing the Queen’s English Society is no loss at all.  One pundit sniffed, “I'm glad the QES is gone—it was time for it to go. It means those of us who really care about language will be able to get on with our job without being distracted by incessant sniping.”

Resentment of their presumptive authority is a common fate for prescriptivists—people who want the rules of usage to be fixed and obeyed.  The QES was a self-described society of prescriptivists.  In the opposite camp are descriptivists—people who believe that dictionaries and grammar books should simply describe language without trying to enforce usage.

The ferocity of the conflict between prescriptivists and descriptivists can startle the uninitiated.  Fifty years ago the publication of Webster’s Third New International (highly descriptive) caused so much fuss that James Parton, publisher of American Heritage magazine, successfully launched the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (highly prescriptive).  Enough controversy to justify the expense of launching a brand new dictionary is a lot of controversy.

Both sides acknowledge that language is constantly changing.  Disagreement comes over when to acknowledge the change.  Current English dictionaries usually take a descriptive approach to definitions, pronunciation, and usage, advising rather than prescribing.  

It probably doesn’t help their cause that prescriptivists can start to sound like schoolmarms and scolds, making the descriptivists seem relaxed and open-minded in comparison.  Laying aside the merits of prescriptivist philosophy, however, we ought to mention that there have been any number of very colorful prescriptivists.  Samuel Johnson, often called the first English lexicographer, comes to mind.  Noah Webster, whom we have to thank for American spellings like humor and center, was such an effective prescriptivist that he managed to change usage for the whole country.  Professor Henry Higgins of “My Fair Lady” may be the best-known fictional prescriptivist, and his guiding principle—that speech reflects class—is not only entertaining but extremely insightful.

Dictionaries—whether prescriptive, descriptive, or something in between—have value only to their users, educated people with an interest in words and usage.  This is a subset, not the majority, of English speakers.

There’s something gloriously egalitarian in the fact that most adults speak and write entirely as they please and manage to communicate successfully without ever using a guide or a reference.  That a Californian can understand most (or at least some) of what a person from Yorkshire is saying is such a commonplace miracle that we take it for granted.

But it’s inescapable that almost any expression put into words will reflect class, that usage is a class attribute, and that “proper” English is as much an arbitrary class signifier as “proper” manners or “proper” attire—the implicit question in each case is proper to whom?

Walt Whitman believed that change in language was driven by slang… that the invention of new words, especially new metaphors, keeps language alive.  He had a point—and it’s worth noting that slang is rarely invented and spread by people who use dictionaries.

Whitman described slang as “an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism and express itself illimitably… the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up—mostly to pass away, though occasionally, to settle and permanently crystallize.”

In his day Whitman was quite the radical.  Nevertheless, when he sat at his desk at the Brooklyn Eagle he was guided in his writing (like everyone else on staff) by the most prescriptive of all reference books—the house style guide.

Today the style guide is one of the last bastions of pure prescriptivism.  Its jurisdiction may end at the office door, but within the editorial department a style guide is judge, jury, and court of last resort.

The primary purpose of the style guide is to enforce consistency from article to article and issue to issue.  A comprehensive style guide also has the effect of removing class attributes from language, at least as much as such a thing is possible.  And that’s an intriguing notion, considering that almost every periodical comes with heavy class associations. 

Speaking for a class is often the very mission of a magazine.  As a matter of fact, what we now call special interest magazines were once called “class” periodicals.  You can form a mental image of the readers of Hot Rod, Cosmo, Reader’s Digest, GQ, Cat Fancy, Vogue, Fortune, or almost any other magazine… and they’re very different.  But you can’t look at those magazines’ punctuation, spelling, and word choice and see the same dramatic contrasts.

That’s because a style guide doesn’t affect the content that readers enjoy and identify with, but instead removes quirks, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies from writing style.  The result is that most magazines don’t often “sound” like their readers.  Participles in Gardens and Guns (“Soul of the South”) end in G.  Articles in Surfing magazine don’t open with “So dude, like…”

Debates over such questions as whether data is singular or plural, whether it’s ten or 10, or whether their is appropriate after a singular antecedent, aren’t likely to interest many people.  But how the debates are settled has a large collective influence… not necessarily over how we talk, but certainly over how we read and write. 

As passionate prescriptivists, members of the Queen’s English Society wanted to extend the rules of “proper” English outside the class of people who care about those rules.  In that light their failure was probably inevitable.  But if the QES had gone into the business of producing style guides, the Society might be with us still.  Focus, focus, focus!

An online article mentioning the closing of the Queen’s English Society assured readers that other people would continue to promote good usage in English.  “The Queen can sleep easy,” the author wrote.

The first comment below the article was, “Shouldn’t that be ‘easily’?”

* * *