Within days of being appointed Leader of the House of Commons in Boris Johnson’s new government, Jacob Rees-Mogg announced a list of linguistic no-go areas for his staff.
I was delighted to read some of the items on the list.
“Meet with” drives me mad. We don’t “meet with” someone. We just “meet” them.
“Yourself” was also included. I wish Mr. Rees-Mogg had also included “myself” in his banned list.
These days, the word “myself” is arguably the most overused and misused word in the English language.
Recently, I was waiting to board a flight at Heathrow airport. One of the boarding staff came on the loudspeaker to announce that my plane had been delayed.
The staff member continued: “Myself will be announcing the new departure time shortly.”
No. No. No.
It’s: “I shall be announcing…”.
That’s basic, correct English. I’m pretty certain that the reason “myself” is now dominating the English language in a totally inaccurate way is that so many people spend all day taking “selfies” that the word “self” now infiltrates every part of their lives.
My focus on correct use of the English language often drives my family mad.
Over the dinner table, a family member might ask: “Who do we ring to book a parking space?”
I explode with the words: “It’s not WHO do we ring? It’s WHOM do we ring?”
So, why do Jacob Rees-Mogg and I share the same preoccupation with correct use of the English language?
I cannot speak for Mr. Rees-Mogg, but I wonder if his focus on correct language use derives from his father having been a journalist – the late William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times. Perhaps his father drilled into him proper use of English.
It was certainly what happened to me, in my case by two or three of the brilliant editors and journalism tutors, under whom I worked in my younger years. They left me with lasting memories of any incorrect use of English on my part. I’m so glad they did.
The first of these was the late Harry Whewell, northern editor of The Guardian in Manchester. When I was at Liverpool University, I edited the student magazine (I’d always wanted to be a journalist). Just before one summer vacation, I travelled over to The Guardian office in Manchester, walked into the office, asked to speak to Harry and he gave me a job as a stand-in reporter over the summer, while some staff journalists were on holiday.
On a few occasions, I made mistakes in the articles I wrote – some language errors.
Harry would mark my mistakes on the article, wander over to my desk and, with the whole newsroom listening, announce to me: “And again please”, as he dropped the article onto my desk. In other words, rewrite it and get it right.
I never made those mistakes again in my journalistic career. Harry, thank you for that. You were a fantastic editor.
Then there were the two trainers who ran BBC News Training, the two-year training programme I joined after leaving university. They were Keith Clark and Eric Stadlen. Both were very strict when it came to getting the English language right.
I shall never forget Robin Walsh, the best BBC editor I worked for. I’ll always remember him calling me at 0605 one morning, when I was on duty in the BBC Belfast newsroom, to complain about a split infinitive I’d included in one of the stories I’d written for that morning’s radio news. He was right to do so.
So, here are some of the other misuses of the English language I’ve had drilled into me over the years by excellent editors to whom I shall be eternally grateful. News items like the following should never be broadcast:
“An electrical fault has delayed train services. None are running on time.”
“None” is a singular word. It means “not one”. It should be: “None is running on time”.
“The tornado that struck the region last night has decimated local villages”.
“Decimate” means to reduce by the power of ten. Therefore, unless the number of villages in the region was reduced from 1000 to 100 as a result of the tornado, you cannot use “decimate”. It should be “destroyed” or “devastated”.
“The government will only be allowing three new motorways.”
That’s a misplaced “only”. In the above sentence, the word “only” governs “three new motorways”, not “allowing”. It should therefore be: “The government will be allowing only three new motorways.”
“Owing to a serious illness pop singer XXX will be appearing at less pop festivals this year.”
It should be “fewer” pop festivals.
Perhaps the one linguistic mistake I made in one of my news reports, for which I received a thunderous rebuke, was my misuse of the word “evacuate”. I cannot remember the exact story, but I think it was something like this:
“Following the earthquake, six thousand people have been evacuated”.
“No, they bloody well haven’t,” was the response from my editor. “Not unless they’ve just gone through colonic irrigation”.
He went on: “People evacuate. They are not evacuated.”
I should have written: “Six thousand people evacuated the area.”
Finally, there’s one word that has slowly been disappearing from the English language when it should not have done.
It’s the word “problem”.
When I returned to the UK after almost twenty years abroad as a foreign correspondent, one of the first things that struck me about how the country had changed was the fact that the word “problem” had been replaced by the word “issue”.
I started hearing things like this:
An electricity generating plant has blown up, causing a massive fire, killing or injuring several workers and cutting off power supplies to thousands of homes. The company spokesperson says: “We acknowledge that we have an issue”.
No, you don’t. You have a “problem”.
An international bank has been hacked by cyber criminals, leaving thousands of customers with money stolen from their accounts. The CEO says: “Our software staff are handling the issue”.
They’re handling the “problem”. Jacob Rees-Mogg has many other linguistic contraventions he needs to investigate.