Have You Eaten Grandma?
Introduction Language Is Power
Language is power, and how we use it defines us.
Think of Winston Churchill. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Think of John Prescott, a British deputy prime minister. “It was a terrible flight. Thank God I’m back on terra cotta.”
Think of Donald Trump. “I will be phenomenal to the women. I mean, I want to help women.”
Think of Kourtney Kardashian. “You’re acting like drunk slobkabobs.”
Language is also what makes us human. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell remarked, “No matter how eloquently a dog may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were poor but honest. Only language can do that.”
And since the way we use language tells the world so much about us, it’s worth getting it right.
If we’ve not met before, let me introduce myself. My name is Gyles Brandreth, and I’m a language obsessive and a punctuation perfectionist. (That doesn’t mean to say I always get it right, but I always aim to.) My mother was a teacher; my father was a lawyer; they brought me up with a love of words. And they sent me to good schools. I
was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it. As a child I read dictionaries at breakfast and asked for a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage for my tenth birthday. I have loved word games all my life. When I was twenty-three, I founded the National Scrabble Championships. Since then, whether as a journalist or a broadcaster, an actor or a member of Parliament, words have been central to my life. I am proud to be the longest-serving resident in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner on Channel 4, the host of BBC Radio 4’s Wordaholics, a regular on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, a reporter on The One Show on BBC1, and the chancellor of the University of Chester. Words are my everything.
So, welcome to Have You Eaten Grandma? It’s an informal guide to punctuation, spelling, and good English for the twenty-first century. In the pages that follow, with what my publishers assure me is “a nice [that means precise as well as pleasing] mixture of good humor and authority,” I aim to anatomize some of the linguistic horrors of our time, work out where we’ve been going wrong (and why), and come up with some tips and tricks to help show how, in the future, we can make fewer (rather than “less”) mistakes. All right?
Is “alright” all right? You’ll find out right here.
The Queen’s English
“Really? I thought she was German.”
The Queen is British, of course, though partly of German heritage. Her husband is British, too, though born in
Greece and brought up in France and Germany. They both speak good English, as do their children and grandchildren. Because the sovereign is the head of state and traditional fount of honor and wisdom in the land, good “correct” English has been called “the Queen’s English” (or “the King’s English”) for at least six hundred years. Shakespeare used the phrase in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor. But to speak good English you don’t have to sound like the Queen. Good English isn’t about your accent: it’s about your ability to communicate—clearly, effectively, and (when you want to) passionately.
I am passionate about the English language. It’s the richest language in the world. It’s our heritage—and our hope. All the research shows that the better the English you speak and write, the happier and more successful you will be. People with better English get better jobs because they write better CVs and communicate more effectively in interviews. People who punctuate poorly and spell badly get lower marks in examinations—and in life. People with better English are more likely to secure the partner of their dreams because (the research shows) when it comes to wooing, words are more important than looks, money, or sex appeal. People with better English are healthier and live longer because they can understand and communicate better with doctors, nurses, and caregivers. Good English makes all the difference. And, alarmingly, good English is under threat.
In a recent survey, four out of five teachers expressed concern about the vocabulary range of their teenage pupils. Apparently, “many are unable to understand questions in
GCSE [single-subject exams] and SATs test papers, leading in some cases to low self-esteem.” Some eleven-year-olds did not know words such as “complete,” “replace,” and “insert.” Some sixteen-year-olds struggled with “explain,” “identify,” and “analyze.” Another survey revealed that while nine out of ten primary school children in the UK could identify a Dalek, only a third could recognize and name a magpie. The world is changing and words are disappearing. The majority of primary school children these days are city-dwellers, and up to two-thirds of them, it seems, are unfamiliar with such lovely words as these:
YouTube, the video-sharing website owned by Google, recently asked two thousand people, ages sixteen to sixty-five, their views on the current state of the English language. Ninety-four percent thought there had been a decline in the correct use of English since the turn of the millennium, with 80 percent identifying young people as the worst culprits. The same survey also found that 75 percent of adults now use emojis to communicate with one another. If a small digital image—designed by someone else and generated for you—can express how you feel, who needs words?
The explosion of social media in our time has had a discombobulating effect on the way we use language. President Donald Trump’s preferred means of communication is the tweet, and his favorite form of punctuation is the exclamation mark (called an “exclamation point” in the US). In 2017 alone, in his tweets he used 3,660 of them! And as well as saying weird things in weird ways (“Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest—and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault”), the American president has come up with some weird words of his own. When on Twitter he declared “We’re going to win bigly,” a new word was born. I thought he meant “bigly” as in “hugely” or “ginormously” or even “supercalifragilisticexpialidociously”—but no, “bigly” was Trump’s Twitter shorthand for “big league.”
I am not against Twitter. I am on Twitter myself. (Do get in touch: you will find me @GylesB1
.) And I know that Jack Dorsey, the boss of Twitter, takes his responsibilities
seriously. He tweeted recently, “We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.” Unsurprisingly, that tweet earned him a Bad Grammar Award from a national magazine that cares about words and language, but Jack’s heart is in the right place and he’s worth $4.6 billion, so what does he care?
Trump invented “bigly” in 2016. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (the longest new word to gain worldwide currency in my lifetime) was popularized by the 1964 film Mary Poppins. In 2018, “Meet me at McDonald’s” isn’t an invitation; bizarrely, it’s the name some young people have given a fashionable haircut that involves a closely shaven back and sides with an unruly mop on top. From Airbnb to Generation Z, via TTC (“trying to conceive”) and ransomware (the malicious software that threatens a cyber attack unless ransom is paid), barely a day goes by without a new word or phrase turning up.
Which new words are acceptable? Which aren’t? It’s a minefield, particularly when you add political correctness to the mix. Qantas, the Australian airline, recently advised flight attendants to avoid using the terms “husband” and “wife” and “mum” and “dad” as “they can reinforce the notion that everyone is in a heterosexual relationship and make many families feel excluded.” “Slobkabobs” is in; “mum” and “dad” are out.
What to do?
How to Use This Book
This is my guide to that minefield. When it comes to punctuation, spelling, and the use of English in today’s world, I’m here to tell you what’s right, what’s wrong, when it matters, and when it doesn’t.
Punctuation is important, but the rules are changing. Spelling is important today in a way that it wasn’t when Shakespeare was a boy. Grammar isn’t set in stone. Once upon a time, to split an infinitive was wrong, wrong, wrong. Since the coming of Star Trek in 1966, when “to boldly go where no man has gone before” was what the now-iconic TV series promised to do, we’ve all been at it. “To actually get,” “to really want,” “to truly love,” “to just go”—you may not like them as turns of phrase, but take it from me: they are acceptable nowadays. End of.
And that’s acceptable, too. “End of” as a complete, two-word sentence has even appeared in Hansard, the official record of proceedings in the British Parliament. In 2018, a minister of the crown finished an official statement with a definitive sign-off. “End of,” he said, and sat down.
I’m a patron of the Queen’s English Society—a charity that aims to keep the English language safe from perceived declining standards—but I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. I love the old, but I’m intrigued by the new. And sometimes excited by it, too. Looking at the English language today is like looking out over the city of London from the top of Big Ben. Spread below you, you will see old buildings that have stood the test of time and have a
beauty and grandeur that lift the spirit. And alongside them, often dwarfing them, you will see new buildings, too, and you will think that some of them are striking and inspiring and that some are monstrously ugly and should never have been put up in the first place. The landscape of the English language is much the same.
The Language of Grammar
“I’d like to see your mother, Alice,” said the teacher when Alice opened the door.
“She ain’t here, miss,” Alice replied.
“Why, Alice, where’s your grammar?” the teacher asked.
“She ain’t here neither, miss,” said Alice.
To me, punctuation matters and good spelling is essential. Clear written communication depends on them. The words we use and the way in which we use them are fundamental, but the nuts and bolts of grammar—and the vocabulary of the grammarian—are less important to me. There are quite a few grammatical terms lurking in the pages ahead, but don’t let them unnerve you. Coming up we have “nouns,” “verbs,” “adjectives,” “adverbs,” “participles” (words formed from verbs, like “going” and “gone”), “adjectival compounds” (aaargh!), and more besides. I have provided a brief guide to the language of grammar at the back of the book. Refer to it if you come across a term with which you are not familiar, but you don’t need to understand all the intricacies of English
grammar to be able to communicate well. I use a computer, but I have no idea how it works. I have a wife, but I have no idea why she stays. I take statins, and while the doctor did explain that they inhibit the HMG-CoA reductase—that rate-limiting enzyme of the mevalonate pathway—all I need to know is that they should help lower my bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of a heart attack.
This book can change your life. For the better. Enjoy.