Precise definitions

August 2, 2012

Jennifer Jenkins ("Raising the 'spectras'", Letters, 26 July), in reply to Michael Hollas' complaint about incorrect English ("Singularly annoying", Letters, 19 July), asks to what historical point we should refer for standards of correctness. There is no answer to this: indeed, it is the wrong question.

All languages change, but unlimited change must lead to incomprehensibility. The fundamental function of language is surely communication, both intellectual and emotional. Changes that enhance the precision, clarity and power of English should be welcomed. Those that restrict or distort it (as in George Orwell's "Newspeak") should be resisted.

This is a matter of judgement. But to take just one aspect, it is reasonable to insist on words normally having an accepted meaning as in, say, the Oxford English Dictionary (which itself changes with the language). For example, Professor Moriarty was not Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, as he is frequently called: Holmes was his. "Infamous" - "of ill fame, notoriously vile, abominable" (like Moriarty) - is often taken to mean "very famous". Such misuses diminish the language by loss of precise meaning. Academics have a crucial role to play in maintaining and developing standards in their own disciplines, and this applies equally to our common language.

John Radford, Emeritus professor of psychology, University of East London

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

Reflection of man in cracked mirror

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry

But the highest value UK spin-off companies mainly come from research-intensive universities, latest figures show