Precision tools

I have a new hero.

His name is Lindsay Johns. He is a writer and broadcaster and a mentor to young people in Peckham, and I first encountered him on Radio 4 two weeks ago.

Why is he a hero? Because, in his own words (in the Evening Standard of 16 August), in his mentoring work with young people in Peckham he has “zero tolerance towards inchoate street slang”.

It is quite a stand to be taking in today’s culturally tolerant society. It is a long-overdue rebuke to the well-meaning but destructive philosophy that the rest of society should be embracing street patois, complete with all its incoherence and intellectual limitations (implied and actual) . It is a direct challenge to those who believe that the evolution of language is something to be observed and recorded, rather than influenced or even resisted.

It is a quiet but authoritative reproach to those who think that accuracy in language doesn’t matter – to the self-publisher who releases an e-book riddled with typos, sloppy grammar, punctuation errors and muddled homophones; to the politician whose diction is a contrived series of glo’l stops and dropped aitches; even to the occasional English teacher who has decided that it is cool or “relevant” to allow text-speak in essays.

And Mr Johns gets results. Amazing results.

Look at the opening of his Evening Standard article. Most of his mentees had been encouraged via social media to get involved in last month’s riots. None, none, had done so. That is a result of which he and his mentees can be proud – as are the scholarships which previous mentees have won to Winchester and Westminster. They are results which should stop the rest of us in our tracks for a moment (and which should put a strip of duck tape across the mouths of one or two of the armchair critics on the Evening Standard website).

“A duty of linguistic care”

I have no doubt that there are many aspects of Johns’s mentoring programme that contribute to this track record, but one factor must surely be the gift of articulacy and the self-belief and confidence it brings. “Words,” says Johns, “are the best weapon you can have in your mental arsenal.” And even more forthrightly: “as adults, we…have a duty of linguistic care”.

Simon Heffer, resident grammarian at the Daily Telegraph, puts it another way in his recent book Strictly English. “Few Britons in recent decades will have learned the standard [rules of grammar] in schools. As a result, they cannot use the precision tool of our language to its full capabilities.”

Precision tools, of course, need trained and competent operators. They also need skilled technicians to maintain them. The latter, sadly, is something of an endangered species – and not just in the field of language.

In 21st-century Britain we don’t like expertise. The Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, was reported recently as describing Britain as a society that favours “luvvies” over “boffins”. Or, as I saw it put recently in an online forum, “We seem to want to pedestalise barrow boys, demean technologists and either ridicule or distrust polymaths.”

Transferable skills – really?

In part, the problem arises from the notion of transferable skills – the idea that if you’ve run a successful venture in one field, you can do so in another. We are told this constantly by careers advisors and recruitment consultants and organisational development managers. We want to believe it, because our working environment is changing so fast and so often that we can’t rely on our jobs being there in six months’ time. We have to adapt or die – and we can, because (we are told) the important skills are the transferable ones.

There is a grain of truth in this. I know of more than a few senior military officers who, on retirement from the armed forces, have had highly successful second careers in education, business or politics, or in behind-the-scenes management in these fields. The skills of the military – discipline and self-discipline, organisation, precision, clarity of expression; the ability to absorb intelligence rapidly, to plan and execute; all seasoned with an aura of easy authority – all are invaluable in civilian life.

(I have worked directly with two of them – if they are reading this, they know who they are – and have been impressed above all by their extraordinary skill in people management, which is far above and beyond the average, though it’s not a skill many civilians would associate with the military.)

But transferable skills are not enough, and sometimes they can cause disaster.

The 5p piece vs. the customer charter

In a heart-stopping essay published in Granta in 2001 and entitled “The 12.10 to Leeds”, journalist Ian Jack traces the causes and consequences of the Hatfield rail crash of October 2000. He interviewed a young railway engineer, Philip Haigh:

‘Give us a pen,’ he said at one point, and then: ‘Do you have a 5p piece?’ He drew round the circumference of the coin to produce a circle with a diameter of about 3/4 inch or 2 cm. That was the size of the contact area between wheel and a rail when train and track were in perfect equilibrium. …In an electric locomotive of 100 tons…each 5p [contact area] would support a weight of 12.5 tons.

(I remember reading these words in 2001 and realising how much we take for granted in our everyday lives. Since then I have not been able to travel on a train without a sense of wonder at the accumulated knowledge and expertise that the railways represent. It’s well worth the price of the Granta back issue, or of the author’s anthology, not least for the eloquent dignity of Jack’s writing.)

What Haigh’s drawing depicted was an engineering phenomenon known as the “wheel-rail interface”. The engineers who used to run the railways knew all about it – and they knew why it mattered. They were, in Jack’s words, “authoritarian, highly responsible and very good at what they did”.

He goes on to say: “just before privatisation, the balance changed – it became an operators’ rather than an engineers’ railway”. And a few pages later, he observes sadly that, to many of the railways’ new owners, “‘the wheel-rail interface’ was a term of management rather than science (if it meant anything to them at all)”.

It was, Jack argues, a change that on 17 October 2000 cost four men their lives.

A great gulf fixed

Scientific advances tend to follow a pattern. At first they are the preserve of a tiny specialist elite, the type who can turn a scientific idea into a practical application. Over time two things happen simultaneously: more and more people will develop the skills to understand and use the new technology; whilst the user interface is gradually simplified, so that it can be used by anyone with basic skills.

(Think of the past 25 years’ developments in word processing or database software, or even the technology underpinning this blog. Or think, next time you press a lightswitch, of the scientific knowledge and sheer tenacity of Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, whose pioneering work means that you or I – without needing a PhD in physics, without a generator in our homes – can press a lightswitch and get light.)

We carry around in our pockets technology which far outstrips that which put men on the moon 42 years ago. But we have become almost completely insulated from its workings.

We can write blogs and create websites with no knowledge of HTML or IP addresses. Most people can download an app but would have no idea how to write one. ICT teaching in schools is all about using technology, not programming it. The red light on the car dashboard now tells one not to open the bonnet, but to take the car to the garage and brace oneself for a bill. That is not a problem – not, at least, until society forgets how important are the scientists and programmers and mechanics and engineers who make our world work for us.

That tired old mantra, “the customer is always right”, has a lot to answer for. According to Jack, in October 2000 the rail industry suffered from an institutionalised disregard for engineers and their expertise: “An awful lot of what [the engineers] did – re-signalling and track work – interrupted the running of the trains. Consequently, they got a very bad name with the operators”. A worn, cracked rail was an irritating customer service and PR problem, not an engineering problem. The culture was one of systemic ignorance of and contempt for specialism.

And perhaps we passengers, fixated on the “rights” due to us under some “customer charter” or other, insistent that our convenience is of paramount importance – perhaps we too had a small share in shaping this culture.

Pedants, polymaths and grammar geeks

There is an opportunity for some rebalancing of the way we think. It is too easy to be smug about our own (presumed) level of skill in any field, to be scornful of those less skilled, and to dismiss the true experts. The internet makes it far too easy to become a self-appointed armchair lawyer (or doctor or whatever other profession you care to name). Lawyers are expensive, and all the information is there online, isn’t it? It can’t be that hard to understand, can it?

Here’s a newsflash for you. Wikipedia (or the opinion of a blogger with a big mouth) is no substitute for professional legal advice from someone with years of specialist training – any more than a driving licence qualifies you to give your car its MOT.

It’s harder, perhaps, to be an armchair architect or structural engineer. The architect – a blend of surveyor, artist, designer, engineer, environmental scientist, contract specialist and social entrepreneur – is the very epitome of polymathy. His views can be as irritatingly authoritarian and inconvenient as those of the railway engineer, but they are usually right and (in my experience) always worthy of respect.

Fair enough, some may say. Leave engineering and architecture to – well, to engineers and architects. Bad things can happen when engineering goes wrong. But for goodness’ sake, Bennetts, get off your high horse about grammar. What’s so life-and-death important about language?

Everything is. If engineering gives structure to our transport network, language gives structure to our society. Language is the tool through which we communicate, forge relationships, encourage and nurture one another, teach one another. Name me one of the great milestones of history that has not needed the power of language to bring it about – whether Henry V before Agincourt, the American Declaration of Independence, or the articulation of the ethical debate around scientific research. What else has more power than language?

We have this great powerful tool – and yet there are still those who think that it doesn’t matter whether or not it is used properly. We don’t all need to be grammar geeks. But if we expect to get the tool of language to do anything for us, we need to understand how it works and how to make it work.

It is a truly amazing tool, so simple to use in some respects, so complex in others, so versatile, with a capacity to do far more than most people ask of it. Yet most of us devote so little time and thought to developing our skill. (Here, from a more gifted writer than I shall ever be, are some further thoughts on this subject.)

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

We often write, for example, in a more idiomatic, informal style than we might have done ten years ago – in a style that owes more to spoken English than to formal written English. I do so myself. But even colloquial language deserves to be used with precision; and we seldom think about why written and spoken English work differently.

Writing the first draft of this post, I had a clear spoken voice running through my head. That voice added emphasis and pauses, nuance and meaning, which were not conveyed through the words on the screen alone. To convey that nuance to you, I have had to adapt the language and the punctuation. I have had to force myself consciously into the syntax of written English. That presupposes I know something about syntax.

I like syntax. English grammar may be complex, but it is largely logical. I take issue with the idea that, as someone said online this week, “adhering to archaic reasoning does a disservice to a growing world of language”. The logic of grammar is more than capable of handling whatever we throw at it.

Behira Wanono said on this blog a few months ago: “We have a shared vocabulary, not our own”. Language has one purpose and one purpose only: to convey meaning. That depends on – it requires – shared rules and definitions. This is at least part of what Lindsay Johns meant when he talked about “a duty of linguistic care”.

If we look at the great linguistic innovators of the last 150 years – writers like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce – their great achievement is to use the rules and communal usage of grammar to expand our perspective, not to disregard those rules. Those who disregard them are not, for the most part, helping language to evolve: they are abrogating that duty of care. They do so largely out of laziness. And in so doing they perpetuate confusion and ignorance. (I develop this idea further on my own blog, for those who want to pursue it.)

“Let him have it”

On 2nd November 1952 two teenagers, Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig, tried to break into a warehouse in Croydon. They were spotted on the roof and were cornered by police. Bentley shouted: “Let him have it, Chris!”

Craig shot two policemen, killing one of them. Bentley, aged 19, was hanged in January 1953 as an accomplice to murder.

“Let him have it, Chris!” Five words shouted out by a teenager in the heat of the moment. Five words with one meaning in 1950s street slang, and a completely opposite meaning in everyday language.

Was Bentley telling Craig to shoot? Or to hand over his gun? It was 45 years before the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction, on the grounds (among others) that “Let him have it” was ambiguous. He wasn’t alive to hear their verdict. Nor were his parents and sister, who had spent the rest of their lives campaigning for his innocence.

I have no idea whether Lindsay Johns tells the young people of Peckham about the Derek Bentley case. What I do know is that he gives them one of the greatest gifts anyone can receive – the gift of articulacy; the skill to use a precision tool.

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5 Responses to Precision tools

  1. Pingback: Precision tools | The Power of Language « Things Unrespected

  2. Gwen says:

    I always enjoy your writing, Ben, especially the finesse with which you use our rich language to express your meaning – just as well, really, considering you are writing about precision! You are a very good example of it.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Thank you, Gwen. I carry with me the enduring legacy of three teachers. You taught me respect for the structure, discipline, precision and logic of language, but above all a love of it. They have been good companions.

  3. Janie Bill says:

    Bravo, Ben.

    You speak truth as revealed by your conviction regarding the impression made by those who are educated in articulation. Many famous actors’ careers have ended after giving an interview because the public realized they merely act and because they can’t articulate their thoughts, they are deemed ignorant.
    This past week, a hard-working contractor inspected our property to give a quote for repairs. He was not an educated man, but he knew his business and he knew the degreed engineers’ plan to make repairs wouldn’t work. Despite the blue-collar worker’s lack of formal training, he was able to articulate his opinion and therefore was considered to be the wisest man on site.
    Same with lawyers and all other professions. The ability to clearly convey one’s thoughts gives the impression one is the smartest and his opinion holds the greatest value.
    Tragically, online communications require the same articulation but many texters and bloggers rely on a stilted rushed style, giving the impression they are ill-informed and lazy.
    Obviously, proper speech has been modified over time. Certainly, man no longer refers to one another as “thou’ and “ye” and the poor “whom” is vaporizing as we discuss the issue. Whether it is politically correct to state the obvious or not, proper English requires being well-read on numerous topics so that one may articulate his opinions from more than one perspective. Otherwise, others assume he is inferior, whether it is a result of class, breeding, school systems or laziness. Man must study words.



  4. Pingback: The perils of the written word | Things Unrespected

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