This is by way of being an apology.
Etiquette dictates that those intending to dump their girlfriends or boyfriends should seem to apologise by employing the simple formula, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Passing a few hours online the other day, I happened across a rather attractive T-shirt for sale which bore the message, “IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU”. That I must have, I thought. Someone has finally had the bright idea of telling the truth. How refreshing to get it on my chest! However, the T-shirt is neatly folded in the drawer beside my bed, as yet unworn.
Every morning when I wake up I can’t avoid seeing a huge Rob Ryan print on the bedroom wall. Two lovers are looking up at the heavens. They are separated by a hill, on which is written, “These same stars and this same sky hang over both you and I. In my dreams and in my heart they help us feel less far apart”. Every morning I quickly look away. Why? Let me explain.
We enjoy it when politicians reveal their ignorance of things they ought to know, but I find I can forgive most of them most of the time. I forgave the Schools Minister in 1998 who couldn’t multiply 7 by 8, and the Agriculture Minister in 2012 who didn’t know the price of a pint of milk, and Nicky Morgan in 2014, when she was Minister of Education and refused to answer any questions on her maths tables. In September I even forgave the US Presidential candidate who hadn’t heard of Aleppo. In May, however, when we discovered that Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, couldn’t tell his prepositions from his subordinating conjunctions, I was in difficulties.
Emily Thornberry, our current Shadow Foreign Secretary, was recently unable to tell Sky News the names of any of the foreign ministers she was just about to meet. I forgave her. But one member of the public didn’t, tweeting “why dont her and jess Philips go form a feminist party and let some grown up talk.” When I read that tweet, I winced. It wasn’t the aggression or the logic. No, what I found really wincesome was the use of English. It’s only a tweet, so the punctuation is forgivable, but “why dont her and jess Philips go form a feminist party” commits the offence for which Jeremy Corbyn was justly pilloried when he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about “the price you and me are paying” for the NHS. Both Jeremy and the tweeter were confusing the accusative form with the nominative. Where on earth, I asked myself, did these people go to school?
Well ok, Thornberry went to a secondary modern, but Corbyn went to a grammar school! What an irony! Of course, all schools try to take grammar very seriously these days, but it isn’t easy. My son’s teacher recently wrote to parents about the importance of spelling and “regular practise of the key rules.” There followed a list of spellings “to practice at home.” Another teacher wrote to us that children must learn “how to use apostrophe’s in their sentences.” On each occasion, I winced, just as I used to when shops first started putting up signs directing us to “Womens clothing”, “Mens gifts” and “Childrens books”.
But why all this wincing? Why do I avert my gaze from the Rob Ryan? Why, when I attended an English professor’s inaugural lecture last year, did I find myself physically unable to look any more at her PowerPoint slide once I had noticed the word she spelled ‘LIASON’? And why haven’t I worn that T-shirt? Is it because, by using the accusative instead of the nominative, it too commits the mistake no properly educated person would commit.
Hamlet was a product of the University of Wittenberg. When he dumped Ophelia, Hamlet went to inordinate lengths to avoid saying “It’s not you, it’s me.” Of course, he lived to regret it. But even so, when he stepped forward at her funeral to reveal that he hadn’t died, he took care with his pronouns, crying “This is I, Hamlet the Dane,” not “Cooee! It’s me!”
Hamlet got his comeuppance. And I feel mine is awaiting me too. My compulsion, not just to wince at solecisms but to point them out to someone – even, sometimes and to my shame, to the perpetrator of the offence – is surely a symptom of a deep-seated sickness. My only excuse is that I was brain-washed at school into believing that there’s a right way and a wrong way of constructing a sentence and then spelling it. Of course I know now that this is nonsense. There are no rules, no laws of English, only habits and conventions. In the rational bit of my brain I fully understand that. And yet, when I see the word ‘LIASON’, my knees jerk, Pavlov’s dog salivates and I label as idiots and lesser beings those who have dared commit the offence of challenging the linguistic habits I was signed up to by my school teachers.
All this wincing is simply snobbery. It’s pathetic. It’s really sad. I need help. In the meantime I am writing to apologise to all those whose grammar I have condemned (Rob, Jeremy, the T-shirt-manufacturer, and the rest of you) and to beg forgiveness. And I say to you, without wincing, “It’s not you. It’s me.”