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The allure of rudimentary rules: why proper English matters

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I arrived at the Barbican on October 18, 2014 not quite sure what to expect from the Battle of Ideas. The programme appeared to be intriguingly diverse: slowly acclimatising to such an early start on a refreshingly deserted Piccadilly line train, my eyes flitted between a session on the Cinderella Law’s perceived criminalisation of parental authority and Josie Appleton’s damning critique of our vetting and barring system. I’d already scratched out the potentially fierce dialogue on Israel’s offensive against Gaza this summer. As keen as I was to get stuck into a controversy that I followed so closely at university, my mandate for the day was education.
If you’ve not yet caught on to the theme of the tenth annual Battle of Ideas (and I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t), the concept of "judgement" weaved together the weekend’s colourful tapestry of debates.

Our avoidance of making judgements was cited as one of today’s most crippling problems. Society is afraid to judge yet “serious times mean we need judgement more than ever”, so said Claire Fox in her 9:30am welcome address. In response to her emphatic call to arms, I actually attended none of the sessions outlined above. I ended up instead at ‘Do ya get me?’ – an hour's debate on whether proper English matters in contemporary society. Lindsay Johns shared his conviction that "text speak" hinders a young person’s chances of "getting on in the world". He argued that the people in power judge us by how we speak, citing language as "an empowering arsenal which every child must have at his/her disposal”. Slang leads to ghettoes, dole queues and disenfranchisement, he thinks. The “calibre of our minds and the contents of our hearts” are judged by how we express them in words.

Lindsay vehemently rebuffed Valerie Coultas’ defence of the more progressive 'talk for learning' model. Her support for colloquial registers and celebrating cultural diversity in language was met with Lindsay’s argument that humans revert to type under pressure. So if I’m anxious in a job interview or anxiously trying to impress my university supervisor, I’ll forget the well-articulated rhythms of my ‘formal register’ and slip instead into my regional Cumbrian dialect. I'll quicken the pace of my speech until I’m barely comprehensible, he would say. And that will get me nowhere quickly. Decent opinions on both sides, I thought.

But it was Mr Nevile M Gwynne who really captured my imagination with his three-piece suit and bright white hair. His clipped consonants and disciplinarian demeanour were splintered with wild gesticulations of his not-so-frail limbs. He mechanically recited the rudiments of the English language while flourishing his book (Gwynne’s Grammar) under the noses of his fellow panellists, drawing giggles from a riveted crowd. With something of the dramatic artist about him, he condemned “any illusions that English is an evolving language”, prescribed the need for following rules and ordered his audience never to split an infinitive. Textbook old Etonian and an unashamed former member of the Bullingdon Club? Yes. But he was strangely compelling. I admired his eccentric energy and fearless instruction. His talk was a case in point: so much of what you say is how you say it. Nevile convinced me because he was passionate and charismatic and because it was so easy to follow every word he said.

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