Stephen Fry: a study in futile pontification

I happened upon the following uploading on Upworthy, entitled

Stephen Fry Takes A Firm Stance On Grammar. He Doesn’t Go The Way You’d Think.

Stephen Fry has carved himself a public image for Being Clever, and good luck to him: we all have to eat. However irritating I may find his persona should not (and will not) bother him one jot.

Essentially what this six-and-a-half minutes is all about is that language pedantry is tiresome, pointless and indicative of all sorts of negative characteristics pertaining to the pedant. Before you start jumping up and down wanting to cite the numerous times he has pompously put down panellists on his TV programme, QI, when their syntax was in his judgement less than flawless, I have to tell you that he has got that angle covered.

Oh yes, he declares, he used to be like that; but he grew out of it.

With a deft little flick of his rhetorical wrist he paints himself perfect. He knows all the rules better than you do, has decided from henceforth to apply them only selectively, and if you don’t follow his lead you are a fossil.

If you haven’t yet judged by my tone allow me to make it clear that I find this pontification tedious, not least because it is itself a form of pedantry.  It seeks to replace one set of rules with yet another. Furthermore it is shallow pedantry, not just because it is a case of the silly and superficial masquerading as the profound but because it chooses to be blind to the market mechanisms that govern the growth and development of language.

As with so many things there is a tension between those who would change everything and those who would change nothing. These two extremes need each other: the one drives the change the other applies the brake. Somewhere between them is the course on which our language will progress. The brake is the Devil’s advocate that ensures that only the best of what is new prevails.

Anyone who arrogates the role of arbiter of acceptability is being just plain dumb, because it’s futile. The market will make its decisions, and those decisions will be right. Millions of verbal transactions between speakers of the language will result in fostering and pruning of words and phrases and syntactical patterns, and so the language grows. It really is as simple as that. Those who love the language should watch and enjoy the game, rather than trying to dictate it.

Q. Who led the Pedants’ Revolt?

A. Which Tyler.

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