Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dumbing down

We all know it’s a constant feature of our society that people are increasingly treated by government as childish simpletons, with the obvious consequence that they behave to fit the mould.

This was recently raised in the press with regard to the Vicky Price trial, and yet as I understand the public details I have some sympathy for the jury on that occasion. Their job was not to hear the evidence and make a simple factual decision whether Prof Plum did it in the library with a lead pipe. In this case they knew she did it. They had to try and decide the much trickier situation, whether the wife of a bullying husband would ‘reasonably’ be under pressure to break the law and protect that husband. It seems to me that the whole basis of the case hinged round a definition of ‘reasonable’, and around the assumptions and expectations within a family, their needing guidance possibly reflected that difficulty.

No, the dumbing down that really irritates me at the moment is displayed by the increasing misuse of language. It’s not just a case of imperfect predictive text and finger-trouble spelling errors, we all do that. I have seen “it’s” used as a possessive so often that my fingers try and type it even when I know it’s wrong! 

It all started with the humble apostrophe of course. All of us of a certain age were told, as I was, that it means a letter (or letters) is missing, most often used to shorten the possessive and still distinguish it from the plural. Yet even on respected web sites and media there are frequent mistakes, just now I found the word “ Tories’ “ and I don’t know if it was used correctly to describe a policy belonging to all the individual members of the party (unlikely) or was used in error for “Tory’s” meaning belonging to the party?

The problem is not that linguistic errors erode the meaning of text but more significantly that they can display a fundamental lack of understanding. As we know people who can’t articulate their thoughts clearly are often not thinking clearly. It shows as misplaced language, or as the gibberish of marketing speech which obscures all meaning.

The worst linguistic offences used to be the misuse of homonyms like there/their/they’re and to/too/two, but nowadays most Americans (it appears) don’t understand the difference between words like affect and effect either. That suggests confusion between what’s done and what happens, a confusion which in fact displays a basic underlying failure of understanding of cause and effect. This ties up with the apparent increasing inability of people, and governments, to make logical policies and deductions.

More recently much of London (it seems to be London-centric) appears to have forgotten the use of the verb ‘to be’ with regard to the singular (is) or plural (are). This shows up as the continual use of “ there’s ”  even when the subject is plural. It drives me mad, once you catch on you see and hear it everywhere.

I think this error demonstrates the modern lack of numeracy.  Along with it we find the word ‘amount’ increasingly used instead of ‘number’.  I was always taught that ‘amount’ was to be used for uncountable materials while for physical discrete countable items I should (almost always) use the word ‘number’. Thus we have an amount of money in our pocket but a number of coins. When I hear a phrase like “an amount of cars” it means to me that they were all chopped up, mixed together and dumped in a heap. 

The use of the word ‘number’ to describe a quantity of ‘things’ is rapidly dying out. That suggests to me that large sections of the population are actually unable cope with or frightened of numbers. That modern language users subconsciously shy away from the concept of countability or accuracy. Rather like Detritus in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series whose counting ability is restricted to ‘one, two, many’ much of modern society can only count ‘one, two, three,… amount’.  The fact that something can be given a numeric value has become not just unimportant but a reminder of numerical illiteracy and thus to be avoided.

The misuse of “less” in place of “fewer” is a parallel situation to “amount” and “number”.  You hear it on the BBC all the time, for example “Less people out of work”.  I know there are plenty of people who would tell me to stop being over-pedantic, after all does it matter if Tesco’s sign reads “10 items or less” rather than “10 items or fewer”? Well yes it does, because in the deeper sense it ignores and hence diminishes the distinction between a lower number and lower significance. Are all those remaining benefit claimants perhaps dwarves? Is that why they are less?

Is this laxity of language and inability to articulate precisely a result of people becoming less educated and less able to think logically, or is a diminishing ability to think clearly leading to the inability to differentiate different concepts? It’s a downhill slope either way. When politicians and those in charge of our lives can claim, and probably believe, that making something more expensive is somehow cheaper, and that cold weather is caused by heating we know that we must be nearing the bottom of the slope.

NB - I'm fed up with politics this week. The butter came from a National Trust cafe.


  1. What about the use of "the below"? Drives me batty though I'm more accommodating of all the other inaccuracies and mistakes in grammar as it being a sign of an evolving language.

  2. No, the dumbing down that really irritates me at the moment is displayed by the increasing misuse of language. It’s not just a case of imperfect predictive text and finger-trouble spelling errors, we all do that. I have seen “it’s” used as a possessive so often that my fingers try and type it even when I know it’s wrong!

    When English was one's field, these matters are hard to shake off, get out of the mind.

  3. I learned the value of good English at school. I knew it was an advantage to be passably correct and articulate because I was told so. Presumably these basic lessons are no longer taught, or at least their advantage is not stressed by modern teachers.

    Socially there seems to be no great stress on the advantages of having a good command of the language either. As we all know, many celebrities do not speak well at all. Tony Blair's infamous "y'know" for example.