I’m going back to the well of madness that is the Queen’s English Society. You might remember them for the savaging they received at the hands of Stan Carey, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell. A brief summary: they’re a group of misguided pedants insisting that everyone else ought to be as obsessed as they are with minutiae like the specific placement of only. In order to enforce this belief, they propose saddling us with a language academy akin to that employed by the French. And who do they think ought to be that language academy? Why, the QES, of course!
One of the Economist‘s blogs has an interview with the president of the Queen’s English Society, and right off the bat, it pointed out why the QES is thoroughly unqualified to be a language academy.
Their president, Bernard Lamb, is a geneticist who teaches at Imperial College London. He’s an actual scientist, so surely he knows that solid data is necessary before jumping to any conclusions or inciting any panics about the state of society. Surely he has some evidence to support his strongly held belief that English is in dire straits, and that a language academy will fix it. So let’s see his complete response to the question “Has the standard of English really dropped?”:
“It has, yes. Punctuation is down, and spelling standards are down. My students confuse things like “weather” and “whether”, or “their” and “they’re”, which should have been corrected long ago. If I see a correct semicolon, that makes my day! They’re so useful!”
It has, yes. I don’t mean to be needlessly snarky, but a geneticist’s opinion of English doesn’t prove anything. And it doesn’t help matters that his only bit of data is the completely irrelevant anecdotal evidence that his students make spelling errors.
Why is it irrelevant? First, it contains no reference point, so the fact that his students’ English is currently bad is not evidence that the standards have dropped; it might have been just as bad a century ago. Secondly, it’s anecdotal evidence based on a sample of students in a science class. Perhaps the admission standards of his university are slipping, generating a drop in the competence of his students that is completely independent of any trend in society as a whole. Thirdly, if the worst problem you can think of to prove that English is falling apart is a couple of typos, I’m unimpressed.
Let’s reverse the situation. Suppose that instead of a bioscientist telling us about language, it was me, a linguist, talking about medicine. The interviewer asks “Are people healthier now?”, and I respond
“Oh my, yes. Smallpox infections are down. My students take multi-vitamin supplements, which have been shown to be good for your health. If I see someone eat a banana, it makes my day! Potassium is so useful!”
It’d be obvious that I was just blowing smoke, that I held a belief and was just reaching for anything I could come up with to justify it. But, because so many people want to believe that language standards are falling, this sort of non-evidence is seen as compelling.
Let me close by noting that I’m not saying that standards are definitely not falling. I just haven’t seen the evidence for the fall of English. Maybe Lamb has that evidence, and he’s chosen not to present it. (“I have here in my hand a list of 205 grammatical mistakes ruining our language.”) I doubt it. Determining society’s overall grammaticality level at different points in time is an exquisitely difficult and poorly defined task, and I am unaware of any controlled experiments to assess a claim like Lamb’s. Judging by his response to the question, I think he is too.