Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Who says grammar is outmoded?

Winston Spencer Churchill put it beautifully when he said that the UK and the USA were “two great nations divided by a common language”.

This has so proved and been exacerbated by the strong influence of the American film and television industry. It came about quite slowly – and at about the same pace – as the general ‘dumbing down’ in schools of examination questions, and the growth in the use of short-cut terms in language. Take, for instance, the use of the word ‘upcoming’ instead of the previously common (and certainly more English-sounding) ‘forthcoming’.

Then there is the mis-pronunciation of the word ‘surveillance’ as ‘survey-lance’. This is, of course, a French word that means ‘keeping a close eye on’. The English translation of the French is ‘purveyance’ but because of the way people lapse quickly into the easy ways of neglecting the rules of grammar, another word disappears from the language.

Another instance of how Americanisms are so easily copied, can be noticed in films and television dramas. In early war films, the skipper of a bomber in giving instruction to a crew member over his radio might then ask: ‘Copy?’  The expected reply would be: ‘Roger.’  Today, the answer invariably, will be: ‘Roger that’ or ‘Copy that’.

If you think that, up to now, this has been a rant by someone who is just nit-picking, well, I have not yet had my go at the real grammatical enemy – the split infinitive. Therein lies the greatest American blunder which was led by the popular science-fiction television series, Star Trek, with the now famous and ever parodied: “Space, the final frontier. To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

From that time, both in the written form and in general conversation, sentences that would begin with the word ‘To’ always seem to be followed by an adjective instead of the completed infinitive. For example: ‘To fairly treat’ or ‘to not go’. 

The result has been that ‘split-infinitisms’ have now become completely acceptable.

Maybe it is because I am becoming old and crotchety, or perhaps it is the memory of the scoldings from my first newspaper editor over lapses in my copy, such as missing an apostrophe where necessary, or his pointing out that ‘disassociate’ should be written: ‘dissociate’ and ‘disassemble’ to be ‘dissemble’.

I have to say, I was very fortunate in having begun my journalistic career with such a great local newspaper as the Kent Messenger. Let us hope and pray that we never lose such valuable training grounds as our local newspapers!

Michael Moriarty