Don’t accept dumbing down

One of the most pernicious trends of modern times is not just the lowering of standards – it’s the belief that the process in inevitable and must be accepted. In other words, the descent to the lowest level is inexorable and, what is worse, is the new norm. Live with it, say its proponents.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the corruption of language. I have to shelter under the admission that I am a pedant when I rail against the misuse of “your” and “you’re”, the dropping or superfluous addition of apostrophes, the use of “could of” instead of “could have”.

I am told that correct grammar is out of date, and that today’s communication is more informal and that, implicitly, grammatical howlers are perfectly acceptable.

It is true that the internet has spread the epidemic of solecisms and diminished the standard and range of vocabulary. That was inevitable. Volume often overrides correctness. But I want to take issue with the underlying assumption: that we should accept the decline and settle for the lowest common denominator. Just look at the evidence of progress.

Science is progressing at a breathtaking rate. It cannot be doing so with a lowering standard of education and brain power. The human condition is being so much better helped because of an accelerating insight into mental illness and stress on the one hand, and our potential on the other. Medical science and engineering achievements are advancing faster than ever before.

Throughout history, mankind has made progress in the face of resistance, both from those who did not want change, and from those who wanted the benefits of change without contributing to the process of elevating the lot of everyone around. That is is where we are now with language.

It is not necessary to accept dumbing down. On this occasion I shall limit myself to the topic of language and grammar. I do not cling rigidly to the rules of grammar for their own sake, but rather to two other guiding principles: semantics and rhetoric.

Semantics is about the correct use of language, to reflect the intended meaning. Rhetoric is about the correct use of language to communicate all the subtleties of that intention and make its use a powerful experience.

I invite you to stand with me.