Our Natural Idiom

By D. J. Webb

I have wanted to write on the English language for a long time. Pressures of work and other things have intervened, and so I’m only just getting round to it.

Good English is a desirable goal for basic education. I find that most younger people have lacunae of various kinds in their command of English. I spent years working as an English-language sub-editor, and consequently have a viewpoint on most linguistic disputes. The many flaws that are present in written English spoil my enjoyment of our culture. When I reach “impact” as a verb meaning “to affect” (I do accept “impact” as a verb with a different sense in “the meteor impacted the ground”), I generally stop reading. “Likely” as an adverb (“the government will likely say so”), other than where reinforced by an adverb (“most likely, very likely”) has a similar effect on me.

I encourage all to use good English, and I do accept valid criticism of my own published English. But the problem arises that it is difficult to state in any authoritative way what good English is. There is no institute charged with the task of (note: not “tasked with”) controlling the standard, and I doubt I would accept the authority of such a body should one exist. We all have our own views on good English. This is, of course, why publishing houses have sub-editing departments. A in-house style guide or manual, while not capable of handing down authoritative rulings on English in general, may resolve them for the purposes of the company’s own publications.

I would argue that a good feel for idiom is essential. Yet the classical English of the nineteenth century often seemed to defy idiom. I wonder how many people in the 1880s naturally said “it is I”, and not “it’s me”. It seems a Latinate register of the English language was introduced, probably artificially, by people with a poor understanding of linguistics who were happy to ride roughshod over idiom. Yet were I to claim children should be taught that “it is I” is incorrect, we could be consigning to oblivion most of the Great Books. My compromise is to argue that children should be taught to sense natural idiom in the language they hear around them, but to accept that a Latinate register also exists. It would not be out of place for older pupils to engage in discussion of the extent to which the devising of the Latinate register happened in defiance of the real English grammar.

My understanding of idiom reflects my study of Irish Gaelic, particularly the Cork dialect, which some of its leading proponents one hundred years ago regarded as the “most correct” dialect. Modern linguistics rejects the idea that any dialect can be fundamentally more correct; the standard language is always an arbitrary thing, partly based on the need for children to study a canon of great works (including books that say “it is I”). However, in most respects, the self-appointed “experts” knew less about the real Irish language than the native speakers.

Peter O’Leary, an Irish priest born in an Irish-speaking area in 1839 and the foremost proponent of Cork Irish, later related his astonishment that during his confirmation service in 1852 a priest from the English-speaking part of Ireland addressed the congregation in Irish as a phobail Dé! (“O people of God! O congregation!”) The grammars published in the nineteenth century listed a vocative of each noun, including the vocative a phobail for the noun pobal. Yet all native speakers knew that collective nouns did not use a declined vocative. The correct form was a phobal Dé, and the distinction is audible to the native ear. For decades, the learners believed that the native speakers “didn’t speak their own language properly”. Grammar books published in the early 1900s finally conceded that collective nouns are not declined for the vocative, which rule is taught throughout Ireland today.

Another example is that Canon O’Leary insisted that the correct form of “what else?” was cad eile cad XXX (literally “what else what?”), where the second cad is followed by a verbal clause (“what else did he say?”). This is accepted in Standard Irish today. But his insistence that “who else?” and “how else?” were cad eile cé and cad eile conas (literally “what else who?” and “what else how?”) has been overridden in modern grammar books as drawn up by learners in Dublin. The people who knew the least determined the standard.

When we look at English, it must be admitted that Middle English contained a hodge-podge of forms, as did early nineteenth-century Irish before the Gaelic Revival. The task of drawing up a standard language is to impose some regularity on the existing forms, but, ideally, without making up any new forms, and without introducing “logical” refinements that contradict the forms found in all existing dialects. I believe that standardizers have imposed considerations of logic in tidying up Middle English in a way that makes some of the principles of grammar unidiomatic.

A good question to raise here is the rule against a double negative. Having lived in the south, in London, in the East Midlands, in Yorkshire and the North-west, I have yet to find a village or area of England where the uneducated people do not say “I don’t know nothing/nuffink”. How is the double negative wrong? In French, they say je ne sais rien. In Russian, it is nichego ne znayu. Most European languages use a double negative.

I personally naturally say “I don’t know anything”, but it seems this form is the concoction of the education system, in place of the former grammatically correct “I don’t know nothing”. For example, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we read:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In all his lyf unto no maner wight.

This means “he never yet no vileness didn’t say, In all his life to no manner of man”. Oliver Cromwell related the words of his dying nephew in 1644 thus:

A little after, he said one thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him what it was. He told me it was that God had not suffered him to be no more the executioner of His enemies.

Next time you hear a slightly educated teacher opine that “if you don’t know nothing, you must know something”, ask him what date this grammatical principle was introduced, and tell him to go and tell it to the French. It seems the rule against double negation was first formalised in a grammar book published by Robert Lowth in 1762. Nevertheless, there are so many people who naturally say “I don’t know anything” that I think this form must now be accepted, and children should accept the Latinate register, especially in print. They should not be taught not to use double negation in conversation.

Lowth was also much taken with the “rule” that a sentence should never end with a preposition. This “rule” is an absurdity, as it is a noted feature of Germanic language that separable verbs may see the prepositions detached from the verbs they are used with. In German, Sie wird sofort ankommen means “she will arrive forthwith”, whereas “she arrived immediately” is Sie kam sofort an. Similar examples could be deduced from Dutch and other Germanic tongues. Phrases like “something with which I am happy” are acceptable variants of “something I am happy with”. However, it is charlatanry for teachers to reject the latter variant, which is, in fact, more readily found in speech.

A number of older forms exist, side by side with colloquial variants. These are acceptable, but I would argue may only be used in certain contexts. “Who are you speaking about?” and “about whom are you speaking?” are both correct. “Whom are you speaking about?” is not right. As the word “whom” recedes into obsolescence, its use is only acceptable where a preposition immediately precedes it, thus justifying the use. “The man whom I saw” is painful to hear or read. “The man I saw” or “the man who I saw” are correct. If you translate the sentence into a number of other languages, you require the accusative of the relative pronoun, but this is irrelevant. The guiding principle must be our native English idiom.

I come to a category of supposed mistakes that lead to painful hypercorrections. “Only” is a problem. English idiom places this word before the verb. “I only speak two languages” is what is said. To intrude the consideration of logic—arguing that “only” logically qualifies the object—is to bring in an extraneous consideration. “I speak only two languages” sounds, to my ear, like someone trying to avoid the natural, idiomatic way of phrasing the sentence. Once again, children can be taught to recognise, but not use, such phrases where found in classical English literature. I read in The Telegraph recently “sources suggested the company would allow only weeks rather than months for a rescue deal”. The sentence is in poor English, as the word “only” is incorrectly placed.

A similar problem arises with sentences like the following: “every individual Mexican is not against Trump”. This sentence appears to make no sense, but, more to the point, defies idiom. “Not every single individual Mexican is against Trump” is the true form. Americans frequently make this mistake. I wonder if this form is influenced by some other languages once spoken by immigrant populations in the US.

Think of the logical future in French. “When I arrive” is quand j’arriverai in French, but “if he wants to” and “when he comes” are correctly present-tense in English. I believe this relates to the development of the future tense with “will” from an Anglo-Saxon verb expressing desire; there originally was no future tense. Be that as it may, logic is not an appropriate consideration in grammar or linguistics.

The “split infinitive” is another non-rule: apparently, because the infinitive is a single word in Latin, so must it be in English too. Yet examples go back centuries of the infinitive being split, and where the verb is followed by a long object phrase, there is no other place to place the adverb. Take this sentence found on a US website recently:

This is a discussion of why the fledgling United States managed to establish successfully a single currency, in contrast to the problems of the Euro.

The sentence is difficult to read aloud with good intonation, as the verb appears to have two arguments, “successfully” and “a single currency”. The adverb occupies the natural position of the object. You could write: “why the US managed to establish a single currency successfully”, but the longer the object phrase gets, the more awkward it is to place the adverb so far from the verb. For example, could you say “the US managed to establish the laws and customs based on English Common Law that it regarded as vital to the functioning of an economic union SUCCESSFULLY”? Whatever way you look at it, the adverb goes between “to” and the verb where placing it at the very end would be awkward; it can never be placed between the verb and its object. “To establish successfully a single currency” is, in my book, a grammatical error. The correct form is “to successfully establish a single currency”. No laws of logic can tell you this; only natural idiom can.

One of the worst flaws of US English is the failure to parse collective nouns as plural. We all say “a lot ARE”; I’ve never heard of “a lot of people IS in the room”, although “a lot” is a singular noun. Yet Americans write nonsense like the following, found on Bloomberg:

Since then, there has been a flurry of voices echoing that sentiment.

A flurry, a lot, a series of voices are all plural. A flurry of voices HAVE been heard. The choir ARE singing a song. The English football team ARE winning. The point is that these singular nouns are collective in sense. Some nouns, such as “the government”, can be construed as a singular entity, or seen as collective, as the government employs many people and embraces many interests. “The government ARE bringing in a bill” is perfectly acceptable English.

We now come to another piece of nonsense introduced by the Latinizers. “None of us” is a collective, and is correctly followed by a plural verb, as any child knows. “None of us are perfect” is good English. “None of us is perfect” is found in the Latinate register, and may be preferred in print owing to the influence of the classical literary heritage, but children should be aware that such usage defies the real, idiomatic rule on the treatment of collective nouns and phrases.

“It is I” is a grammatical nonsense, acceptable only in the context of a Latinate text from the nineteenth century. “It is I who am here” is even worse: no-one says that. “It’s me who is here” is the correct form.

I’m not suggesting that “anything goes” in language. Where a principle is historically correct and accords with the agreed idiom of careful speakers, then the fact that less educated people say something different is not relevant to me. I do not accept “refute” as a synonym of “deny”, largely because educated native speakers have not surrendered the pass on that. The same goes for “ask” as a noun and “impact” as a verb. But a healthy knowledge of the historical fact that some of the rules were always non-rules does not go amiss. A well-written sentence should read like it was written by an intelligent person, but should not be so jarringly artificial as to attract the reader’s notice. Sentences like “I have only two things to say”, by contrast, immediately jolt the reader with their absence of idiomatic flavour. They are written by people who think their English is better, but who, in fact, know less than they think they do about linguistics. There ain’t no sense in writin’ nuffink what’s unnatural, now, is there?


  1. David,

    While I agree with the general thrust of what you say here, I can’t agree with everything.

    To say that people have lacunae in their command of English is, I think, to unreasonably make fun of those who didn’t have the benefit of a classical education. And mine was so long ago, that I had to look the word up. But when you later speak pejoratively of a “Latinate register,” I laugh.

    You’re basically right about “impact” versus “affect.” But you missed, maybe, the political slant that “impact” is used to mean “affect, in the way that we want.”

    I shall not comment on “A in-house style guide or manual.”

    Your sentence about Trump would have been better phrased with no negatives at all: “Some Mexicans are for Trump.” Or “There exist Mexicans who are for Trump.”

    On split infinitives, I tend to agree with you; and I generally use them only to make a point, and only where the adverb in between has four or more syllables. (See above).

    I disagree with you about “flurry.” “A flurry of snow have settled on Boston” is wrong. One must always be careful about nouns which can be both singular and plural. Particularly the word “people,” which – as an individualist – I try never to use in the singular; I prefer to use “persons” instead.

    And I’m not sure it’s a good idea to get carried away with idiom. The French have many failings; but their word “idiotisme” isn’t one of them.

  2. The “correct” dialect is the one spoken by the group with the biggest clubs, usually the victors in the latest war. As for the rest of the ideas expressed in the article, the usual standards of what is now called “academic language” apply: the attempt to be as accurate yet as brief and simple as possible. It’s a sliding scale, and a lot depends on the context and purpose (what is now often referred to as “genre”). What is appropriate in one situation may not be in another (“It is I” may have been appropriate in one time and place, but hardly in today’s colloquial English).

  3. One tends to try to write what sounds poetically-better when rehearsed in the head. Regarding speech, I think one ought to try to cleave to Latinate forms – if it can be done while conveying tight meaning inside short sentences.,

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