The Blog

The Grammar of Terror

In England, home to the glorious English language, everyone knows that bad grammar is the same as bad thoughts, and bad thoughts are the sure road to terrorism.

It's even felt, in certain elite Westminster circles and the editors of The Times, that bad grammar practically is terrorism.

Take the immediate response to ISIS's latest death video by an esteemed 'leading forensic analyst'. Speaking exclusively to The Times, in an article which was - alas - quickly removed (I fear under editorial intervention), said 'expert' was able to deduct, through the sheer might of their expertise, that the killer's 'poor grammar in the script indicated that he was badly educated'; and, in addition, '"[i]f this person has grown up in England, which his fluency suggests is the case, then he did not do very well at school"'.

As I'm sure we all agree, it's damning stuff. And as for this analyst - well, get them a knighthood for services to the Crown. Now, surely - having ascertained this heady fact - we are en route to identifying this lone wolf? This one failure of the glorious British educational system?

Well, actually, no. Because there are whispers, somewhere - clearly not stemming from our government's finest linguistic analysts, to whom this must come as a shock - that our schools are actually, quite often, failing to teach young people the basic tenets of their own language. That, in fact, this could be the voice of millions of British men, with the same experiences, and the same education, and - yes - the same bad grammar.

So there are many ironies to the starring role that language must play when waging war against masked murderers in ski masks.

Suffering daily indignities in the age of social media slovenliness and almost total neglect in schools, it's suddenly all we're left with: the verbal fingerprint of British-brand terror.

Queue a frenzied interrogation by our security experts of dropped T's and rolled R's; the desperate analysis of whether an ISIS thug wields his pronouns with the precision of his beheading sword. Observe the hard, fast class lines drawn between the Southeast Asian accent and the plummy Etonian vowels that will later denounce it in soundbites ('It's desperate stuff' said Cameron, possibly caught on the way to the rugger, 'from an organisation clearly on the backfoot').

Of course, there is no denying the links between poor education, ignorance, and bigotry. For light relief, see UKIP, in general (but particularly for this).

But this article in The Times, though short-lived, says something important about our national reaction to the tremors of terror.

Though most of us couldn't honestly swear we know what an adverb is, we like to comfort ourselves that these men and women are clearly buffoons. In many cases, watching them fumble through unwieldy scripts lifted straight from their do-your-own-death-vid handbook, it would certainly appear to be true. We are heartened by Boris Johnson's dismissal of Jihadis as a bunch of porn-watching wankers who can't get a girlfriend.

And while we should take heart in the the British scorn and the vindicated contempt and, yes, the mockery - for nothing enrages a self-appointed god squad more than a right old laugh at their expense - there is also something wilfully blind in this response.

Because the message is this: not people like us. Not democracies like ours (or at least the good bits). And certainly not - heavens forfend - Times readers.

To be sure, it's a tempting a position, sometimes. There is something irreconcilably alien about people who reject democracy. The mind boggles at individuals who can sit there, fed, watered, and housed; using free speech to declaim free speech; using their freedom to deny it to others. It simply does not compute.

But to go down that path is to deny a much more difficult truth: that our democracy ushered this mess in, and our democracy needs to fix it.

And if there is a dreadful irony in ISIS terrorists with bad grammar - busy imposing the deadly rules of a book onto others, when they themselves can't follow the basic rules of their mother tongue, or, indeed, even interpret the Qur'an - there is also something shameful about a government of Eton thoroughbreds, seemingly uninterested in ensuring that all British children (not just the posh ones) have the basic tenets of language, and the rich history of critical thought that accompanies it, suddenly pouncing on 'poor education' and 'poor grammar' as game, set, and match in the battle of terrorist finger pointing.

I've taught enough students in the last eight years to know that there is something very bad happening in our education system. Most kids have no idea how to use grammar, £30,000-a-year education or not. Few have any sense of how what they learn helps them make sense of the world around them. Even fewer have any idea how to think for themselves.

In these conditions, it's really pot luck if the influencer in their life is the CEO they call daddy or a radical islamist. It's not enough to draw lines between intelligent or not, educated and not, privileged and not. There are enough lines. The point is: how do we bridge them?

George Orwell famously wrote of language:

'It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

... If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.'

It's a battle of the books - and we have work to do.