Pesky pedant ... moi?

If Jane Austen can flout the rules of grammar so can I, writes Sally Feldman

September 16, 2010

Would you ever have thought it? Jane Austen, it's just been revealed, was guilty of a shocking disregard for propriety. She paid no attention whatsoever to the rules of written English. "Austen hardly punctuates at all," says Roger Walshe, curator of a forthcoming British Library exhibition, Evolving English, where part of the uncorrected manuscript of Persuasion will take pride of place. "There tends to be an awful lot of clauses and sub-clauses. There is the odd comma, but they aren't always in the most rational places. There are no paragraphs."

What a turn-up for all those wonderful books. Jane, my Jane, for so long revered as the mistress of restraint and correctness, has finally been outed as a wild anarchist, far more interested in feelings and verve than in obeying the rules. "It's like she's telling a story rather than writing one," Walshe told The Times. "You can imagine her thinking through a scene and then rushing to write it down ... There is a real sense of urgency."

Jane's prose was rescued by her publishers, John Murray, who tidied her up, inserted commas, replaced the myriad dashes that littered her pages and thereby in large part created the style for which she is so adored. Eat your heart out Keith Waterhouse who, in English Our English, asserts that "no one can read Jane Austen for the first time without realising that, as someone said, grammar is wit".

No doubt we should congratulate the team at John Murray for doing such a creditable job. But imagine what conscientious editors might have done with other cherished classics: whipped Finnegans Wake through the spellcheck, perhaps? Removed the dashes from Emily Dickinson? Shortened Henry James' sentences? Think how many works of genius might have been stifled by too obsessive an attention to split infinitives or inappropriate apostrophes.

And oh how the purists rage about that most fiercely contested little sign. There's even an Apostrophe Protection Society whose sole mission is to keep it in its place. Its members are the kind of people who will take a longer route just to avoid passing any greengrocers, who habitually use apostrophes so wantonly that, muses Waterhouse, they must come over in crates of fruit, like exotic spiders. And yet wherever they're inserted or omitted, apostrophes never really get in the way of meaning. You wouldn't confuse tomatoes with potatoes because of a misapplied little tic.

But still the pedants fume, in the same way as that most self-righteous community, the Radio 4 audience, will write in with such indignant delight whenever they spot any mistake at all. It's a field sport. Play in the wrong bird call and they'll email in their hundreds to knock you off your wicket. Mispronounce Chernobyl or Obama and you can feel the glee palpitating over the net. But none of the complaints about swear words in light entertainment or sexually explicit language during the school holidays could ever come close to the torrents of abuse hurled at any grammatical infelicity.

And I can't help wondering whether what underlies such vehemence is a terror of change. Any change. Language purists are nostalgic for a more stable, imagined past: a past where you could be comforted, as John Major once put it, by the smack of willow on the village green as spinsters cycled to evensong; a past where everyone knew their place and where it was acceptable to aspire to speak like the Queen.

There's a strong and disagreeable class snobbery among language pedants. Understanding the difference between compared with and compared to, between that and which, between a colon and its promiscuous brother the semi-colon - these are the hallmarks of the educated middle class. And while they may deplore the ignorance of others, they secretly relish the exclusiveness of their club. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells doesn't want too many new neighbours muddying his lawn.

People who pontificate about punctuation are the ones who hold up meetings to ensure that every mistake is minuted. They are the worst kind of dinner companions, the last people you'd want to corner you on a long plane journey. They're grumpy, fussy, quick to criticise, deeply conservative, petty, unforgiving and obsessed with status. So hooray for Jane Austen, who clearly couldn't give a fig about her flouting of pettifogging conventions and would have been so much more fun at a party.

Thanks to Jane I've been liberated from that army of language fascists who are invading the best-seller lists. I no longer need to feel guilty at never having got round to reading Lynne Truss' phenomenally successful Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Nor do I need to take any notice of Simon Heffer, the latest curmudgeon to enter the fray with Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write ... and Why it Matters.

Why, then, did I recently find myself recoiling, as if stung, while reading a job application? In every other respect the candidate for the senior lectureship in media was perfectly qualified and highly impressive. I was all for him, until I reached the phrase: "Its always a pleasure to pass on my knowledge to the next generation." I just couldn't forgive the unfortunate omission. I can take dangling participles, go easy on split infinitives or even rampant commas; but I can't tolerate the wrong use of its, or it's, or its'.

It was as though a repressed conservatism was rising up to choke me. Suddenly, I was like a trenchant radical with a secret penchant for the Daily Mail, or an advocate of free love who can't resist checking her partner's emails. "It's" is my pea under the mattress, my smoking gun, my bacon in the kosher butcher's.

And "it's" what it's all about.

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