The pedants are revolting. They’re up in arms about everything. Nothing is safe from the Constabulary of Pedantry. There is even a column in The Times on Saturday entitled “The Pedant.” Who cannot be irritated by the sentence which starts: “I think you’ll find that…………….”?
But hang on. It if wasn’t for pedantry, I’d find life meaningless. There would be nothing to debate or worse still; there would be no chance to correct people. Oh, how I love it when my inner teacher sallies forth to indicate a misuse of our fine language.
Yes, I’m a practising pedant, specialising in the correct use of the English language. (Should language have a capital L in this context?) But discretion is needed here. I let a lot of things go. For example, I don’t correct all people who use the term “off of”. I just feel glib about not falling into the trap of this common, highly irritating colloquialism.
This morning, from my bedroom, I heard someone outside say:
“It’s one of them roads.” Did I feel the urge to scramble into my literary fatigues and go dashing outside to correct such thoughtless abuse of the queen’s English? Well yes I did but my discretion button came into play and it was raining. I can just imagine his response:
Me: (Half dressed rolling aggressively towards offender.) It’s one of those roads.
Bemused ordinary man: That’s what I just said. A brief look of bemusement precedes his walking back to his van, shaking his head.
Perhaps one of our most respected purveyors of the spoken and written word is Suzy Dent, the regular keeper of Dictionary Corner in Countdown. Countdown is a very soft cuddly celebration of words and their meanings. It’s like a meeting of friends, all agreed about their avid interest in the very bones of our native tongue.
Once I heard the great Suzy declare her dislike for starting a sentence with the word “so”. It’s a very worth notion. We regard words like so as a conjunction or a connective; just like and or but perhaps. But (smug use of a connective opener) have you noticed how many sentences do actually start with and?
In modern literature there will be many examples. Even the first paragraph of Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” breaks all the rules of grammar. It breaks rules for dramatic effect. It works. So why can’t we use such openers for similar purposes? (I think the use of so is perfectly valid here.)
In music we’d call it an upbeat; an anacrusis to be precise. Many well loved pieces start in this way. Beethoven’s fifth, Brahms fourth or Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto.
The real abuse of the word so and the reason for it being so irritating is the way it’s used to stall whilst one is thinking of an answer:
“That question is tricky so I’ll start with a long so.” Then the respondent will continue to open each sentence in the same way. Ten questions later and you want to poke them in the eye. One of my favourite TV programmes is “Pointless.” The ever jolly Alexander will asked each contestant what they do. Fifty percent of the time they will respond with “So”. That’s when I want to shout:
“So is not the way to begin a response you ignoramus who’s only on the show because you waste your time watching crappy American stuff and Strictly.”
Language, like music, needs its effects. It needs to hold the listener or the reader. Repetition, alliteration and abbreviation are great tools for drama. Similarly we can delight in the art of elegant variation as an author begins to describe a scene of tumult or tranquillity. And what about Bill the Bard? Such mastery of language has placed the bars of literary composition as high as the sky. Why say:
“He’s being duped by that old slag” when you can write “Take but good note and you shall see in him the third pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool.”
Thank you for reading.