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

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