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Bruton-Simmonds on BBC Radio
Thursday, November 1, 2007   10:59 PM

I heard an interesting exchange today while listening to the BBC's Monday Radio Newspod podcast. At the very end of the program they had Ian Bruton-Simmonds of the Queen's English Society on to talk about a proposal to hire a "language advisor" for the BBC.

Prescriptivists may recognize Bruton-Simmonds as the author of Mend Your English; descriptivists might recall a Language Log post in which he was named ranter of the year for his lecture "A Criticism of Modern Linguistics with Suggestion for Improvement of English through the BBC." For what it's worth, the Queen's English Society website has a prescriptivist "Good English" page, but it's fairly reasonable-sounding stuff.

I don't agree with the proposal, even though I'd coincidentally come up with a similar idea earlier this week after attending an amateur poetry reading. There were dangling modifiers.

Still, this interview left me with mixed feelings. Bruton-Simmonds comes off as the sort of gentleman prescriptivist who's all too rare these days.

Here's a partial transcript:

Bruton-Simmonds: This isn't a matter of correcting mistakes of grammar or vocabulary; seasoned presenters don't make gross errors. Broadcasting journalists are often under more immediate pressure than press journalists. Most would welcome discreet advice in the network, I would suggest.

BBC: And you're saying there is a problem at the moment with vocabulary and with grammar?

Bruton-Simmonds: Yes.

BBC: Who on earth could you employ that could solve the problem?

Bruton-Simmonds: Very easy. There must be a language advisor sitting in Broadcast House. He must have at least the knowledge of English that I've got. And there are hundreds of people in Britain who surpass me. He would be—

BBC: But the problem isn't you, the problem is — me, for example — and since we are talking live, and we are, ad libbing, nobody sitting in Broadcasting House is going to be able to—

Bruton-Simmonds: But if you make a mistake — let us say you give a sentence that is, that can be improved. Even Shakespeare, if he was in your position, under that pressure, is going to make a mistake now and again. If the language advisor says to you, privately, "this sentence you said — here is a sentence better," at once you would say "thanks!"

BBC: You do know that we have millions of language advisors in the form of our listeners, who do contact us —

Bruton-Simmonds: They are a danger. A pedant can do a lot of damage, and they are the ones who get steamed up. You want somebody with real, heavy knowledge.

You could probably successfully attack what he's saying from either grammatico-political front, but there are some good sentiments here. I think we would all prefer to have more language advisors and fewer language police.


Wow, that "Criticism of Modern Linguistics" is really something. I've read it, but unfortunately I'm still not sure how "Applied Linguistics has had a baneful influence on education, and hence on society from top to bottom". This is probably because I never studied Latin, so my comprehension is impeded.

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