Lost for words?

by Mark Newbrook

Many authors, journalists and broadcasters with an interest in language publish their observations and views – manifesting varying degrees of awareness of and sympathy with the findings of professional linguists. Some, notably Bill Bryson, display commendable expertise. One who is at times relatively disappointing is John Humphrys (Mastermind, etc).

For instance, in his 2004 book Lost For Words Humphrys:

  1. apparently assumes the truth of a Chomskyan ‘nativist’ theory of language acquisition;
  2. seems in places to confuse
  1. children’s pre-adult usage and
  2. non-standard or slipshod usage;
  1. confuses conscious knowledge of English grammar and punctuation with the ability to speak and write in standard English (the former can help with the latter where this is desirable, but they are quite separate matters);
  2. misinterprets a technical term used by the linguist Jean Aitchison to explain the increasingly common omission of the apostrophe in let’s (as in let’s go!) and then dismisses the explanation in terms which are in fact merely a lay re-statement of Aitchison’s own words! Etc.

This book, and others like it, are far from valueless – but readers must not treat them as authoritative.