The Daily Telegraph
Grammar is a question of manners
By Dot Wordsworth
A repulsive piece of grammar is like a mangled frog left by the cat in the
middle of the kitchen lino. It is not necessarily ill-intentioned, but the repellent
effect increases according to the frequency of the offence.
Take "like", as in, "I was like, 'Wow!' He was like, 'Come off it'." It is hardly a
bit of grammar at all, more a kind of oral punctuation. The people who use it,
usually young or would-be young, are extremely annoying. But a fat new
book, the Cambridge Grammar of English, calmly notes that "like" is used to
introduce direct speech, instead of "said". That is not the real crime.
This new construction is at fault because it conveys abstract emotion by
acting it out in invented dialogue. Instead of saying, "I was astonished," the
speaker says, "I was like, 'Wow!' " That wouldn't be too bad once, but the sort
of people who do it, do it all the time. It is more tedious than the old bad habit
of reporting a conversation in the form: "So she says to me, 'You never.' And I
says to her, 'I did.' "
Grammar is a question of manners, practically of morals. Please don't take
me for a language policewoman. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are
easy to live with. For us to casually split an infinitive seems no worse than for
a Frenchman to split the negatives ne and pas with an interposing verb.
On the other hand, "Whatever", that infuriating response from the passively
aggressive, is just rude. Other constructions are annoying because the
speaker should know better. Kirsty Wark used the phrase "beg the question"
the other night to mean "invite the question", which it doesn't. To "beg the
question" means to fallaciously take as proved the very premise you are
arguing in favour of.
Yet the two professors behind the Cambridge Grammar, Ronald Carter and