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The Queen’s English Society is dead. Long live … erm, maybe not

Andrew Steeds

Difficult to avoid saying ‘And not before time’ to this piece of news, which is now a couple of months old.
The Queen’s English Society (QES) is, or rather was (how good is it to write that!), one of those pressure groups that always seemed to get an undeserved amount of attention. Despite the protestations of its members and the points made on its website, it was resolutely backwards-looking in its approach to language, often unhelpfully conflating received pronunciation and Queen’s English, and generally giving linguistic prescriptivism a bad name.
The biggest argument against prescriptivism of the kind practised by the QES is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because, as the QES itself admitted, language is constantly changing and the position of prescriptivists is linguistic whistling in the wind, or a continuous round of closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted. I’m actually sympathetic to the concerns of prescriptivists. I understand the reassurance of rules – it’s a common refrain from clients, many of whom ‘just want to know what’s right’ – and I think that even those of us who would identify ourselves as linguistically liberal if not descriptive would nevertheless recognise prescriptive tendencies in ourselves. Ask any of the writers I’ve worked with in the past!
But what seemed invidious about the QES’s prescriptivism was its tendency to suggest a Golden Age of language use and a form of English that was (to use its terms) ‘correct and elegant’. Concerning the first point, is there a time that is universally accepted to have produced the best English? Even if there were (and please don’t shout out ‘How about Elizabethan England?’), would this English have been used by the whole population? And, concerning the second point, who is it (apart, obviously, from the QES) who determines what is ‘correct and elegant’? What criteria do they use? Who has established these criteria?
Although it would swear it wasn’t, the whole essence of the QES was exclusive – excluding people of a different region, class, culture, age who might use a different form of English from the one the QES itself endorsed. It was galling to find the QES trotted out so regularly to comment on some new aspect of language and to hear them pontificate in their tired, predictable way about declining standards and the like. How gratifying, therefore, to see that they were themselves so moribund that they didn’t have the energy to reinvent themselves, to carry their own forlorn flame any further forward! Maybe Nick Gibb and Michael Gove will mourn their passing, but I can see few sentient beings doing so. For one thing, how can anyone regret the demise of an organisation that had Gyles Brandreth as one of its patrons?