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14 October 2012

Native speakers misusing English #3: gay marriage and grammatical guff

In My Fair Lady Professor Higgins famously asked: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” Although his point related primarily to accent (which is supposed to be passé today in “classless” Britain) the point is equally applicable to grammar. The placard pictured on the right was on display outside the Conservative Party conference  in Birmingham last week.
     What do you think “backwards views” are?  “Backward views” are fine—indeed often very sensible since the past has in many ways more to recommend it than the present (or so it seems when you get to my age). But “backwards” views really means—if it means anything—that the views are reversed. For example, instead of being opposed to gay marriage, you might be in favour of compulsory marriage for all gays.
     Views “older than the dinosaurs” means that the views in question have been held since before dinosaurs evolved. That is thought to have been about 230 million years ago. Was the writer of this неграмотный placard really arguing that people have been lobbying against gay marriage for 230 million years?
     But that is impossible since the human race has only existed for about 40,000 years (in Australia; less elsewhere). It is not known when the institution of marriage took root, but it can only have been after humans evolved. Marriage is not known in other species—companionship, yes; but “marriage”, no: that is a contractual arrangement which requires speech, writing, legal limits on behaviour and stable social institutions, none of which are found amongst, say, the chimpanzees who live entirely without lawyers, priests or policemen. Nobody in the Conservative Party is proposing to stop gay people living together on companionable terms. The point the placard-holder is trying to make is that the gay community should be allowed to evolve beyond the chimpanzee stage so that its members can marry in the formal, legal sense of the word.
     Exaggeration is pardonable in advertising, a rhetorical context or when a joke is implied. This is not an advertisement (except for the inadequacy of the Birmingham educational system). It is not rhetoric either, as that requires a connected series of statements, while here there is only one. And I see no joke, only sadness at the thought that Professor Higgins’s point still holds.
     By the way, the best joke at the Conservative Party conference on the subject of human evolution was made, perhaps predictably, by Boris Johnson.
     “Can your incompetency be learned or is it genetic?” someone asked him.
     “Ask an evolutionary biologist,” he shot back.

Language note: Even the question was неграмотный: “Incompetency” in this context is the wrong word. It should have been “incompetence”.


  1. Hey Prof,
    What the heck does the following mean: "and stable social institutions, *none* of which are *not found* amongst, say, the chimpanzees"? Maybe chimpanzees have "stable social institutions" after all? ;)

  2. Thank you. Now we're on the right track...

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  4. So you would create a grammatically perfect placard would you? Well, bully for you! I suppose you would draw a more convincing dinosaur too! As an English speaker I know how very important it is to be able to misuse the language 'correctly' so as not to appear an overly-formal, joyless prat. You still have much to learn in that regard.
    It seems to have escaped your attention that homosexuals already have a legal union in civil partnerships. The point she is making is that they should be allowed to call it a marriage and enjoy the legal benefits that that redefinition entails and the only arguments against this are largely forgotten anachronisms. One would expect to have to look backwards in time to find these views being held, but they are in fact strangely evident in the present.
    Maybe you should stick to critiquing shorter placards made in five minutes, at short notice, by teenagers, that you might have better chance of not being stumped by their meaning.

  5. It doesn't mean literally older than the dinosaurs. Come on be serious!

    It would be like saying "donkeys years" or "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse"