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Sep 2007 Journal

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Between you and I

If the odd Continental Briton says ‘I am in England for 70 years’ or ‘the aunt from my second cousin’, it’s entirely forgivable. After all, English is not our mother tongue, and tenses and prepositions are notoriously difficult to master in any language. Especially prepositions. But imagine my consternation when Jeremy Paxman said on Newsnight recently - not once but twice - ‘different to’.

Let me confess here that, until very recently, I was something of a grammar freak. I would split an infinitive only under extreme duress, and ‘between you and I’ would make me squirm. I also took apostrophes very seriously. ‘The butchers’ wife’ or ‘who’s book is this?’ would fail to amuse me. My sense of humour completely deserted me when it came to grammar. When the presenter of a BBC TV programme asked someone ‘by who?’, I, who had always regarded the BBC as the guardian of the English language, was horrified. Nor did I look kindly on the use of ‘media’ and ‘phenomena’ as singular nouns. Not that I always get it right but I do – I mean did – try very hard.

Jeremy Paxman, the anchor of Newsnight and the daunting interrogator of University Challenge, was the indirect cause of my conversion from grammarian to libertarian. Different to indeed! Similar to, different from. Everyone knew that.

Appalled, I consulted Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Certain that Fowler would share my displeasure, I turned to ‘different’. The very first sentence of a well-reasoned argument shocked me to the core: ‘That d. can only be followed by from and not by to is a SUPERSTITION.’ Yes, in caps. I silently asked Jeremy Paxman’s forgiveness.

What about split infinitives then? Fowler divides the English-speaking world into five groups. I will only quote part of what he has to say about Group 1: ‘Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority and are a happy folk …’ ‘to really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’ … and they do say it, to the discomfort to some … but not to their own.’ He concludes that in some cases it is better to split an infinitive than to create ambiguity and artificiality by not splitting it.

He also gives quite a lot of space to who and whom but, while not condoning the misapplication of these pronouns, he is far more relaxed about it than I am - or was. He maintains that ‘English speakers being very little conversant with case-forms, mistakes are sure to occur.’

Much humbled by H. W. Fowler (1858-1933), I examined my attitude. Since I was brought up speaking German and went on to learn Latin and classical Greek, it would be strange if couldn’t tell a nominative from an accusative, a subject from an object. But why should the English, whose language is blissfully free of declensions of nouns, adjectives and articles, possess this knowledge? And anyway, what gives me, a Pygmalion foreigner, the right to teach the English English?

I have decided the time has come for me to chill out. There, I’ve done it, and it didn’t even hurt. But will I be able to keep my newly-acquired cool the next time I hear someone say ‘between you and I’?

Edith Argy

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