At the time of the vacancy in the position of President of the European Commission, on a ‘Questions and Answers’ TV programme a retired American diplomat when answering the question: ‘Is Mr Ahern the right man for the job?’ asked ‘Does Mr Ahern speak French?’ From the other end of the panel Fintan O’Toole was heard to say ‘No, he doesn’t even speak English.’
Now if you are an admirer of Bertie you will probably be offended by this piece of conversation. Please don’t be, since there are many other politicians who haven’t a good grasp of English either. At least Bertie is aware of his limitation and if you can believe all you read in newspapers he has been taking lessons, and there has been an improvement. I haven’t heard him saying ‘we done’ recently. I have heard him say however ‘We should have went’ and ‘by that criteria.’ It’s not just politicians. Schoolteachers, who should know better use bad English. Recently I heard a headmaster who said ‘I done’ twice in a short interview.
Language is like learning to play the piano, and many other things; if you learn bad habits as a child it is hard to change them when you grow up. Some people will say that language is like a finely tuned instrument: when you use it you ought to use it properly, while others will say that the purpose of language is to communicate and if you do that it doesn’t really matter how you do it. It’s a bit like the difference between a work of art in the National Gallery and an advertisement (the consonant ‘is’ correctly pronounced as in ‘risk’ and not as in ‘rise’), on a railway station hoarding, and there is a place for both. The ideal, of course, is to do both; communicate by using the language well, but putting ideals into practice is rare.
Language is a living organism constantly changing, and someone somewhere who produces dictionaries lays down the criteria for what new words have become acceptable and legitimate parts of the language. Many of these new words, or old words with new meanings result from developments in technology or they come from America where they don’t speak English anyway.
After all these pedantic ramblings, now for the point I really want to make. There is no excuse whatever, in my opinion for, the widespread, appalling development today of using the singular of the verb ‘to be’ with the plural object. Eg, ‘there’s two of them, instead of ‘there are two of them.’ The use of is and ‘s when they should be ‘are’ has become a pest in the language, and everybody has caught the disease; academics, schoolteachers, professionals of every variety, and even current affairs presenters on RTE Radio 1 and newsreaders. No doubt in the not too distant future it will become an acceptable part of language. I, however, will go to my grave eschewing the practice.
As I write all of this I am conscious that if anyone ever finds a language mistake in something I have written this pedant will never live it down, and if there is one in this particular piece I’m finished altogether. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”