The Use of English

It is not often that I agree with Bryan Gould but his recent opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald for 17 January goes further than the headline which asserts that broadcasters have a responsibility to use words correctly. The article presents an argument for the proper use of the English. This discussion is timely, given the proposals that New Zealand children should learn a second language at school.

Why do I agree with Mr Gould? The answer is simple. Proper, clear expression avoids ambiguity and ensures that the listener hears or read what the speaker or writer intends. Sloppy sentence construction and bad grammar lead to confusion where the meaning may be arguable.

I know that the argument for a loose form of expression reflects modern usage and that may be the case. But it also means that true meaning may be compromised.  Frankly those who advance such an argument either do not understand the proper rules of grammar and expression or are too lazy to apply them.

My guiebooks to the proper use of the English language are Fowler’s Mdern English Usage and the Oxford English Dictionary. I did study languages other than English when I was at school. I took Latin and French to UE level. I thought I would need Latin which in those days was a required subject for a Law Degree. A year before I left school that requirement was dropped but I continued Latin into the seventh form.

What possible use was Latin to me. It is claimed that it is a dead language. Perhaps the Catholic Church would be interested to learn that. At least I was able to follow a Latin Mass in the days when Latin was the liturgical language. But more importantly, my Latin studies taught me how to construct a proper English sentence that accurately stated what I wanted to say – rather important for a lawyer. I have always valued that.

French got me around France when we travelled there but of the two “second languages” I had, Latin was the favourite. I enjoy reading Cicero, Caesar,Catullus and Virgil in the original. Latin stood me in good stead when I visited Rome and the remains of the Roman colonies in Asia Minor and was able to understand the inscriptions – especially the res gestae divi Augusti  a copy of which is at the Ara Pacis in Rome.

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As you have probably gathered I am in favour of school kids learning a second language although what must come first is a proper understanding of the use of English – proper spelling, proper grammar and proper pronunciation.

As I understand it the debate is heating up about what the choices of second languages should be. Sign and Maori are official languages in New Zealand although in my experience the latter is used more in a formal or ceremonial context although I did hear a case where Maori was used.

But because they are official does not necessarily mean that students should be compelled to learn them. Languages that could be of use in the future and assist in developing an understanding the importance of accuracy of expression may include French, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi and Japanese. Students should have a choice of the second language or languages that they learn although I acknowledge that the choice may be limited by the teaching resources available

And if the teaching resources are available, Latin could also be an option.