What Gets People Riled Up: Not Politics, Grammar!
October 01, 2012, 05:11 PM
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One of the first pieces of advice I got on the matter of writing for the public came from an old Fleet Street hand.  Approximately: "Say what you like about the Queen or the Pope.  Be as rude as you want about the IRA, PLO, the Jews or the blacks; nobody will be much bothered.  But try splitting an infinitive and watch the hate mail come pouring in."

In light of recent experience, I think I might want to qualify that.  It is certainly true, though, that language ? especially grammar and usage ? excite people`s passions more than most of the political folderol and bogus "controversies" that fill our newspapers.

Two illustrations from the past few days:

1. A story from MailOnline about how Americans are taking up British usages.  Apparently we Yanks are now saying "gobsmacked" and "snog" (though not the very useful "naff").

Maybe so, but my dogged efforts to introduce these colonies to Cockney rhyming slang have so far fallen on stony ground.

Note that the MailOnline story has a longer  comment  thread  than  any  of the big " news" stories.

2. Political discussions on Larry Auster`s blog ground to a halt over the weekend as Larry`s readers engaged in furious skirmishing over the hardy perennial "shall" versus "will."  

For an interesting aside on which, see the third paragraph of this review.

If you want an even finer cut, the English and the Scots handle this issue differently.  The lyrics of the song "Rule Britannia," for example, were written by James Thomson, a Scot, and so the second line of the chorus is: "Britons never will be slaves."  Most modern versions, however, both written and sung, have "shall" in place of "will" to conform to English usage.  (I don`t know what Americans sing.  I have never heard an American sing "Rule Britannia.")

Kingsley Amis has a note on this in his introduction to The Great British Songbook:

When what a poet or lyric-writer wrote differs from what is habitually sung, we have generally preferred the latter. So for instance . . .  Britons never "shall" be slaves here, not "will" as James Thomson, a Scot following Scottish usage, naturally had them.

For what it`s worth, my 1950s English schoolmasters used to tell us that a chap who had fallen off his boat and could not swim cried out in desperation: "I shall drown! No-one will help me!"  

Further down the river, though, there was a suicide who had jumped off a bridge.  He was shouting out defiantly: "I will drown!  No-one shall help me!"