Listening to the BBC World Service two days ago, one heard the correspondent John Donnison, reporting from Israel on the conflict in Gaza, utter a sentence in which the “neither . . . nor” construction was mangled as “neither . . . or”––a clear violation of English grammar. The utterance was delivered with such clarity as to allow no possibility for mishearing due to a vagary of radio transmission. The mind boggled at hearing a native speaker of British English commit such an egregious grammatical error.
Another example, this time from America. Attending a talk (delivered extemporaneously) at a university by a female biologist––a professor and native speaker of American English in her sixties––one was struck by how many grammatical errors she made in the course of forty minutes. During the discussion that followed, several other persons––all evidently native speakers of American English––offered comments and questions extempore, and in almost every case their speech was not entirely free of grammatical error. Under the circumstances, these data, caught on the fly, might seem unusual and merely anecdotal. But as a matter of actual fact, partially catachrestic speech is rather to be seen as habitual than exceptional in America.
Indeed, if one is multilingual, one notices that contemporary American English speech in the raw stands out for its high incidence of grammatical error. By contrast, in other languages that are either habitual for or are known to the present writer, even children––let alone educated speakers––do not routinely make mistakes in their native speech. Listening in situ to the language of Japanese or Russian children as young as five or six, for instance, one rarely detects errors that are not simply imitations of adult misapplied analogical extensions of grammatical patterns.
It pays to remind oneself that America has a long history of a distinct socio-cultural aversion to and mistrust of grandiloquent diction in ordinary linguistic practice. Indeed, in our own time speaking well is less and less prized as a cultural value—if it ever was at all. Moreover, eloquence outside public speaking has long been regarded with suspicion as a means by which snake oil is sold and other confidence tricks perpetrated. When it comes to professors and other academics, one need only remember the obsolete American designation ‘egghead’ for ‘intellectual’, used to comport not only a direct reference to the typically bald pate of such persons but indirectly to their speech as well. Autres temps, autres moeurs.