Linguistic Lawlessness

Teaching English for the real world

Despite rhetorical nods to the importance of  ‘decolonising the curriculum’, teachers are far more likely to spend time discussing how to teach rather than what to teach. Too often, the content of English lessons is determined by the exam syllabus and what was taught in years gone by. A misplaced sense that all children will go on to become poets or novelists leads to the assumption that it is best if teachers leave pupils alone so as to avoid stifling their creativity. As a result, too many children leave school with neither an appreciation for literature nor an ability to meet real world expectations to read with fluency and write with accuracy.

In Teaching English for The Real World, Joe Nutt considers what schools and English teachers should be doing in order to prepare secondary school children to be successful and effective users of English in the real world of work, higher education and adult life they will enter all too soon. This is a thought-provoking book that asks all of us who care about education and have a love of English to examine what exactly children need to know not just to master essential skills but to develop their own passion for language.

In this extract, Joe critiques the rise of linguistic lawlessness and challenges the solipsism he sees as inherent in so much English teaching that focuses on creativity. He argues this needs to be replaced by a shared sense of linguistic responsibility and a mutual recognition of the widespread social and cultural damage ill-disciplined language causes.

One of the most pernicious and worrying real-world changes new technology has brought goes right to the heart of what it means to be an English teacher, to the core of the social and cultural responsibility all English teachers bear. It’s arguably the most significant gap in real-world English teaching, which is why I have saved it for last. When Lewis Carroll put the following words into Humpty Dumpty’s mouth in Through the Looking-Glass, he was writing for children. A scholarly mathematician, Carroll knew the value of precision and rules.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

One hundred and fifty years later and, with the help of technology, the real world is now overrun by Humpty Dumptys. Wherever you care to look, you will find evidence of a linguistic lawlessness that would have bemused Carroll and his contemporaries. It’s there in the media – social and mainstream – politics, academia and the arts. Even big business isn’t immune. It’s no accident that this passage has been repeatedly cited in court cases and legal arguments ever since Alice first challenged Humpty Dumpty’s egocentric laxity. Working closely with commercial lawyers teaches you that the law is often little more than a dispute between clever individuals about what words mean.

Carroll was fascinated by logic and puzzles, and in one of his scholarly works on logic he wrote that as long as an author explains beforehand that when he uses the word ‘black’ he will always mean ‘white’, and that when he uses the word ‘white’ he means ‘black’, he would be perfectly happy to go along. Through Humpty, Carroll takes the etymological reality that words change to its logical conclusion. Once upon a time, it was perfectly possible to be kempt, flappable and even ept, because words, like the times, change. But that’s all Carroll’s exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty is: an amusing exercise in logic. Alice is the voice of reason intimating the resulting communicative chaos in a world full of Humptys, the real world we all now contend with. 

Journalism has moved from a place where it was a reasonably respected profession – rooted in investigative objectivity and impartiality, a section of civil society that in the US merits the honour of being called ‘the fourth estate’ – to being indistinguishable from politics itself and, at its worst, nothing more illuminating than ill-educated activism. The massive shift of news reporting online has seen the title ‘journalist’ co-opted by all kinds of individuals who publish prose via the internet but who lack professional experience and the important values that conventionally accompany the job. Nonetheless, they are invited to participate in discussions by major news channels who have themselves seen their standards of journalism weakened and undermined by the same online shift.

Channel 4’s head of news, Dorothy Byrne (a professional journalist), speaking at the Edinburgh Festival in 2019, called Boris Johnson ‘a proven liar’ – a phrase which must have given her legal colleagues palpitations. Subsequently, when Johnson chose not to appear in a climate change debate between leadership candidates Channel 4 News organised during the 2019 election, Byrne no doubt felt they were behaving professionally when they substituted an ice sculpture in his stead. Eight weeks into government and Boris Johnson announced that Channel 4, which is funded by the state, would be sold. The BBC, the world’s gold standard in journalism, has itself come under intense government scrutiny for what many perceive as political bias.

When Humptys decide what the word ‘journalist’ means and then go on to embed that habit in their writing, and when there are not enough Alices to challenge them, the consequences can be dramatic, even for institutions as famous and powerful as the BBC. Listen to or watch any major news channel any day of the week and I defy any English teacher not to find their ears tingling at some point as they think, ‘Hold on! That’s not what the word means.’ 

A number of organisations have carried out surveys to try to establish an accurate view of whether or not the BBC has maintained its impartiality as technology has ruffled the waves they once confidently ruled. Perhaps the most neutral is Ofcom, the UK government’s regulatory body for the communications industry. Ofcom has a statutory duty to represent the interests of citizens and consumers by promoting competition and protecting the public from harmful or offensive material, so it’s only reasonable to expect them to be rigorous in anything they say about political bias in broadcasting.

In their 2019 News Consumption report, Ofcom found that 71% of viewers felt BBC TV news was ‘trustworthy’ and that 59% felt it was ‘impartial’. Those figures sound impressive but more people thought the same of ITV (74%), Sky News (73%) and CNN (74%). While 59% thought BBC TV was ‘impartial’, other major channels did even better: ITV (65%), Sky News (68%), Channel 4 (65%) and CNN (70%). Only Channel 5 did worse than the BBC on 58%.89. In 2018, the market researchers BMG carried out a more specific poll that asked a representative sample of just over one thousand British adults to what extent, if at all, they believed that the UK’s largest television broadcasters (the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, and RT) were biased or politically neutral. They concluded that the data revealed considerable partisan effects so that people’s perception of bias for any one news channel, including the BBC, mirrored their own politics. The data did, however, position ITV and Channel 4 as more politically neutral than the BBC, and the survey’s authors found that marginally more viewers believed the BBC exhibited a left-wing bias than believed there was a right-wing one. The Centre for Policy Studies, a centre-right think tank, published the report Bias at the Beeb? A Quantitative Study of Slant in BBC Online Reporting in August 2013 and concluded simply that ‘the BBC exhibits a left-of-centre slant in its online reporting’. You will no doubt have your own experience of BBC reporting to juxtapose against the various findings of these surveys.

Academia is equally troubled by linguistic lawlessness. This is one of those intriguing areas where American English and British English part company to some degree. It’s not unusual to find US academics tacking the word ‘violence’ on to a list of otherwise perfectly innocent terms, so sociologists will refer to ‘data violence’, post-colonialist academics will discuss ‘epistemic violence’ and lawyers ‘administrative violence’. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live our lives entirely or largely free from violence, such usage is jarringly hyperbolic.

Violence is associated by Alices with physical harm and damage, often extreme, not least because we are most familiar with it from the internet, cinema and television, in spite of the Obscene Publications Act which exists to protect citizens from dramatised and, on rare occasions, real depictions of violence. When academics use the term like this, they are deliberately provoking the Alice in us to make a connection they want us to make for their own rhetorical ends. They want us to feel the same abhorrence for ‘data violence’ or ‘epistemic violence’ that they do, so they connect it with what they know we already naturally abhor. Like Humpty, they believe they are masters of the word.

Another word used widely in the US academic circles, but less so in English ones, is ‘gaslighting’. The word is a particularly useful example of linguistic lawlessness because it has a distinctly traceable recent history. It derives its meaning, if you exclude it referring to how streets were illuminated before electricity, from a 1938 stage play by the English author Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light. In the play, a husband who has already murdered one woman for her jewels, undermines his wife’s sanity by consciously and deliberately lying to her to convince her and others that she is mentally unstable. The gas lights in their apartment go dim when he secretly goes upstairs to search for the jewels of the woman he’s murdered and uses the gas light in her rooms, but he skilfully tells his wife she is imagining the lights dimming in theirs.

With this play later made into a popular and successful film by the famous Hollywood director George Cukor, the idea of deliberately lying to someone to confuse and manipulate them embedded itself in popular culture and film theory as ‘gaslighting’. In some academic work, you will find it being used much more loosely to describe any act of undue influence or pressure, often exerted by a majority group over a minority who, it’s usually argued, are being oppressed. 

The word ‘erase’ has also been coerced in this Humpty Dumpty manner when academics want to argue that certain cultural practices or representations exclude minorities. Grown-up Alice would expect the word to be reserved for either mundane practical situations to do with drawing or print, or – much more dramatic – wholescale human events such as genocide or totalitarian censorship. These are common examples, but the Humpty Dumpty strategy is contagious in the real world, and you will find it almost anywhere you care to look when English is being used to persuade or convince. 

A UK higher education think tank, commenting on the admissions scandal that rocked elite US universities in 2019, tweeted these precise words:

Corruption A: bribing a university sports coach to admit your child. Illegal.

Corruption B: parents paying up to $2.5 million to ‘sponsor’ a university coaching position while your child applies to the same institution. Entirely legal and actively encouraged by the top unis.

One of the many things my real-world experience has provided is professional training in EU and UK fraud and anti-corruption legislation, so when a higher education think tank uses the word ‘corruption’ to describe something which they also know is ‘entirely legal’, my linguistic lawlessness hackles rise. This is linguistic lawlessness at its most blatant. One of the UK’s major banks has done something very similar by using the expression ‘We are not an island’ to describe the UK in a major advertising campaign. The last time I needed to get to the continent, walking wasn’t an option.

It would be easy for English teachers to regard this echo of John Donne as sophisticated when something far less cultured is really going on. Donne’s profoundly troubled Christianity is given a trite political makeover merely to align a major bank with its perceived customers. There is something deeply disturbing about the assertiveness of this kind of polarised transposition. It’s as though the authors have no respect for language at all.

A small, select group of denotative words have been subjected to this strategy so commonly and ubiquitously, they’ve become impossible accusations to refute, yet simultaneously devoid of useful meaning. ‘Racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘fascist’ (and its synonym ‘Nazi’) are used (with a truly terrible irony) in the same way yellow stars were used to dehumanise Jews by real fascists. They are hurled at total strangers online, and even by the mainstream media, as a badge of dishonour, a visible mark of shame. They really are scarlet letters because those who hurl them so liberally know the accusation will stick if enough people agree by sharing or ‘liking’. These words became effectively defunct the moment they began being used not as descriptive nouns but as accusations of secular sacrilege.

Democracy relies on free speech and respectful debate – principles denied and repressed by such linguistic lawlessness. In the real world, if English teachers don’t nip this lexical degradation in the bud, no one will. The onus is on all those who teach adolescents how to use English in their speech and writing to instil a profound sense of linguistic integrity in them, to teach them what happens to debate and free speech in the real world when words become Humptys’ playthings. This is why it’s so important to teach linguistic history and etymology in those first few years in secondary school, to develop their knowledge about the language you hope they will use to good effect in later life. The solipsism inherent in so much English teaching that focuses on creativity needs to be replaced by a shared sense of linguistic responsibility, a mutual recognition of the widespread social and cultural damage ill-disciplined language causes.

Joe Nutt is an author, international educational consultant and commentator. After almost 20 years teaching English, unusually in schools ranging from the highly selective, private sector to challenging, inner city state schools, he was seconded by the UK’s Department of Education from his teaching post at the City of London School. The second half of his career has been in business and he has held senior roles at Digitalbrain, RM and EDT. He has written books on John Donne, Shakespeare and Milton. The Point of Poetry was published in 2019 by Unbound. His latest book, Teaching English for the Real World, has just been released. 

You can purchase Teaching English for the Real World here and read a review in the Times Educational Supplement.