Bad language again…

The new Oxford Junior Dictionary has seen its contents severely culled, compared to the previous version. Words like catkin, brook, minnow, acorn, buttercup, heron, almond, marzipan, ash, beetroot, bray, bridle, porpoise, gooseberry, raven, carnation, blackberry, tulip, catkin, porridge and conker have been consigned to oblivion, condemned as irrelevant to a modern child who may never encounter these objects, which is pure bullshit.

I have serious problems with the concept of a junior dictionary anyway, it’s terribly patronising. It’s saying to the child, this is all you can cope with, we really wouldn’t like you to stretch your abilities by the tiniest amount.

If you give a child a junior – for which read severely abbreviated – dictionary, s/he will develop an abbreviated vocabulary. Give a child a full adult dictionary, though, as my parents did to me when I was 10, and a child’s natural curiosity and inclination to learn will be stimulated, and lead to a greatly expanded vocabulary and a greater understanding of the language. OK, for a while they may have more words in their heads than they have an immediate use for, but that will change with time. Far better to have words you don’t yet need, than to need words you don’t yet have.

If you stunt a child’s vocabulary by giving it a reduced dictionary, then you stunt its reading and writing skills too, something from which it may never recover without help. I saw, during my time as an adult literacy tutor, far too many young adults who emerged from the educational system with vocabularies so minimal that even Word, in which I’m typing this – the dictionary of which has a very poor vocabulary – would have given them a run for their money. And these weren’t stupid people, by any means, as was proven when I routinely used my daily Guardian as a teaching tool (sadly, some went on to become Daily Mail readers…). They had simply failed to have their desire for language stimulated, and I believe at the root of that – for at least some of them – was the pernicious concept of the kids’ dictionary.

I do hope the word “sucks” is in the new Oxford Junior Dictionary, because the whole idea of a junior dictionary certainly does. In spades.

Bad language…

Every day the BBC radio traffic reporters annoy the hell out of me because, when discussing road closures, they insist on saying that roads are shut! They’re not – doors are shut, roads are closed, and I got to wondering why such fundamental English usage is seemingly a mystery to the Beeb. I think the answer lies in comics.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds, so sit up straight and pay attention. When I was very young (pre-school), we had comics, then as now, like the Dandy and Beano, which relied mostly on pictures to convey their message, with minimal text mainly in speech balloons (there were a number of other publications, now defunct, which had a similar structure). As our reading skills improved we’d move on to comics which were less cartoonish, with realistic illustrations, still with speech balloons, but also with a text box, at the bottom of each picture, which carried the narrative, so as our reading and comprehension skills improved, we had more of a challenge, and the publications were in a smaller format than the little kids’ comics – the Sun and the Comet were foremost among this style of publication. Of course, these are now history, too, which is a criminal shame, as by the age of four I could read fluently, thanks to this logical progression in my reading matter (scarily, today, comics like the Dandy and Beano are the preserve not of 3-year-olds, as they were in my day, but of 6-8 year-olds).

Of course, the time came when the Sun and Comet no longer presented a challenge. There were books, of course, but also magazine-style “comics” which were almost entirely text-based, with just a scene-setting picture for each story – these were the Hotspur, Adventure, and Wizard which, alas, are also no longer with us. Can you see a pattern here – less progressive reading material for kids = reduced levels of literacy? I was glad to see that the Harry Potter books encouraged a new generation to read, but that was before I read one and realised what egregious, derivative crap it was. Still, they got kids reading, and that’s always a good thing – just a shame they had no taste.

Once we’d outgrown these latter three, say by the age of 10, then we were ready to take on books full-time, our reading skills honed to perfection over 5 years or so by starting simply and working up in increasingly more difficult steps (I had an adult library card at 11, having seriously outgrown the children’s section). Out reading improved totally painlessly, and not only did we read “proper” English, we spoke it too. OK, among our peers we took liberties with the language, as kids and teens have always done, but we were perfectly capable, at need, of speaking properly. And many of us carried our love of reading into adulthood, though sadly many more didn’t – you ask an average sexagenarian how many books he or she read in the past year, and you’re likely to get a blank look – I know one guy of my age who has read one work of fiction in his entire life; terribly ironic, as he worked for the library service, with access to more books than you could shake a stick at!

So, that was how my generation learned to read, and that learning took place mostly outside school, as teaching kids to read then was apparently as hit and miss as it seems to be now, but now, of course, the extra-curricular reading materials that were available to my generation are gone forever (even if they’d survived they’d be absurdly expensive now. When I started school proper – I’d been at the pre-school Care Club – where the children of working parents could go, to receive a modicum of education prior to moving on to the infants’ school. Of course, we Care Club kids had already passed through the Janet and John phase, and mastered the basics of reading and writing, so we were actually looking forward to the new challenge of proper school. And what did we get – back to square one with Janet and bloody John all over again – which is why I said that most progress in reading took place outside school. I was helped, too, by the fact that the girl next door was a year ahead of me, and we’d read to each other – bouncing mistakes and corrections off each other, too, which, I suspect, benefited me rather more than her.

And guess what – we instinctively knew the difference between shut and closed – it’s not sodding rocket science, BBC!

We also learned, by reading reasonably well-written material, and by being taught well (particularly in secondary school – I had a brilliant English teacher), to write well, too – which is what got me into blogging in the first place. There are, apparently, about 95 million blogs, and I suspect – based on those I’ve read – that most are terribly ill-written, and I was convinced I could do better. False modesty aside, I think I’ve accomplished that. OK, I don’t have the massive output of the all-one-long-sentence-with-no-punctuation brigade, who think quantity is all that matters, but I think what I do is as well written as I can make it and, I hope, mostly interesting/entertaining. Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree!

Letters to the editor..

On occasion, I get the urge to write to newspapers, usually The Guardian or Observer. They often edit letters, usually when you ramble on too long, but they used to do it with skill, reducing the number of words but keeping to the spirit of the original. They seem to have lost that skill (and looking at some of the ill-written crap that appears in their online paper, it’s a plague that’s spreading).

Last week, I wrote this, in response to a restaurant review in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine:-

Matthew Norman (Weekend, January 19, at the Griffin Inn), banging on about pan-fried this, and pan-roasted that. Pans – so much better for frying and roasting, I always think, than a plastic bucket, or a top hat. Yes Matthew, it’s a restaurant, they use pans – we know!


Ron Graves.

I mean, it’s short enough, but they still cut it – badly – when they published it:-

Matthew Norman bangs on about pan-fried this, and pan-roasted that (Restaurant Review, January 19). It’s a restaurant, Matthew, they use pans.

Ron Graves

OK, the plastic bucket and top hat bit is just me being a smart-arse, and could have been cut without too much damage, but if they’d just have left the final – we know, it would have been better than this. The tone, now, is all wrong, it just looks snarly rather than slightly witty.

A few weeks ago, they cut another one so much it was meaningless, so that they had to insert a few lines of their own in explanation. When I wrote to them about the futility of editing so badly they then has to explain – which took up the same space as my original would have – I just got back an email full of confused, incoherent drivel. I can’t say I was surprised – levels of literacy at the Guardian have plummeted of late. I think the problem is that the editorial staff are getting younger and they – even with the benefits of a university education – just don’t have the facility with language that their elders have. No-one there, for example, seems to know the difference between partake and participate, seeming to consider them interchangeable and opting for the former. Unless, of course, they are only confident in their spelling with words of seven letters or fewer…