The BBC not speaking English? Surely not

If half the UK population is struggling (‘is’, please note, not ‘are’) to speak, write and spell correct English, don’t expect the BBC to always put you on the right track.

I confess I approached Martha Kearney’s article in the Radio Times (“Stung by criticism”) with a little dose of Schadenfreude, but also a wary eye.

Apparently the anchorwoman of Radio 4’s The World at One has received a string of complaints about her occasional scrambling of the language.

Mmmm, I thought, I can see how your more sensitive listeners prickled at THAT one…’a failure on behalf of the Afghan government’, when she should have said, ‘a failure on the part of the Afghan government’. Shocking.

But what about saying that two politicians were at each other’s throats (instead of throat)? Technically incorrect, but there’s no change in or loss of meaning, and there are two throats involved, after all.

Ditto as regards her saying that a dispute centred around an issue. Do all of us always stick to ‘centred on’ or ‘revolved around’ when we are in full flow?

But I do draw the line at ‘with regards to’ – I get this mental picture of the speaker suddenly breaking off to send greetings to whoever or whatever they are talking about. (Can I say ‘whoever’ and ‘they’, or will someone insist on a ‘whomever’ and a ‘he or she’?)

As one who has spent his working life using the language professionally, like Martha, I sense there’s both good reason and bad for the sort of treatment she had from listeners. And some of it was pretty shouty, it has to be said.

I’m all for maintaining the good use of English, and if necessary, correcting it – on behalf of clients, certainly, and to help those close to you.

But in terms of individual ability, we are increasingly becoming a nation of “knows”, “don’t knows” and “don’t knows but get it all wrong and still don’t knows”.

It’s clearly the “knows” who are at work here on Martha. But outside being helpful, even they, and I include myself and Martha among them, have to beware of parading the few or many cases where we just know what’s right and feel most ardently about setting people straight.

Knowing the difference between ‘jealousy’ and ‘envy’, ‘due to’ and ‘owing to’, and as Martha says, ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ and so on is not going to win me too many friends – and we usually know exactly is meant by the context.

And on the receiving side, I still have people picking me up for saying the population or company or family is instead of saying the population or company or family are , for example– but hey, I’m not being held to account like Martha Kearney.

There’s just one thing I ask of her – could she please look in on the weather people and ask them to stop forecasting ‘bits and pieces’ of rain? They may argue it’s English, but it has about the same effect as them inviting us to follow them on Twitter…

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