As usual, Stephen Fry is absolutely right.
The national treasure has repeatedly and correctly insisted that the English language is a living, breathing thing that cannot and should not be constrained. Least of all by middle-aged pedants trying desperately to exert what little control they have over a fast-changing world by clinging onto some misplaced sense of correctness.
Us middle-aged pedants might not like the way the linguistic sands constantly shift beneath us but there’s nothing we can do about it. And that’s just the way it should be. Our attempts to kettle the language within our tiny comfort zones are as misguided as they are futile.
The glory of English is its relentless evolution, its stubborn insistence on constant movement, its ability to flex and twist and grow to remain relevant. It is a magnificent writhing beast that keeps lexicographers running flat out to keep up. Every one of the OED’s quarterly updates features hundreds, sometimes thousands, of new words including, in January 2020, such peaches as the utterly awesomesauce hench.
And yet…and yet…there are times when people just get it wrong, when they use less instead of fewer, or disinterested when they mean uninterested, or when they pepper their prose with misplaced apostrophes.
At these moments the inner pedant wrestles silently with the laissez-faire progressive behind my strained smile and begs to be allowed to put things right; to (kindly, gently) correct those misguided souls who just don’t understand the difference between complement and compliment.
It’s not just the language I’m sticking up for, pleads the pedant, it’s our validity as copywriters and journalists and editors. If it doesn’t matter when people get these things wrong, do we matter?
It’s mercifully rare these days that the pedant wins these internal wrangles. Most of the time he’s pushed back into his box, to fester until the next outrage. The ‘I’m silently correcting your grammar’ T-shirt he was given a few Christmases ago has long-since found its way to the charity shop.
But he’s still there, lurking; he’s still part of me. And that will hopefully explain why, when faced with the question of choosing my favourite Game of Thrones character (go with me on this), my choice is easy. It’s Stannis Baratheon, of course, the doomed claimant to the Iron Throne whose misguided decision to burn his own daughter at the stake in pursuit of his destiny can be forgiven because of his tendency to correct grammatical mistakes.
The scene that sealed it for me was an impassioned debate at Castle Black, during which one of the Knights of the Watch earned applause by saying ‘Let them die; we’ve got our own to worry about. Less enemies for us’. Cut to a pained Stannis, who mutters ‘fewer’. His loyal lieutenant Ser Davos Seaworth looks puzzled. ‘What?’ he asks, and Stannis earns my undying admiration for wearily shaking his head in a way that perfectly conveys his depth of feeling about the rules and his awareness of the futility of pointing them out. Good work, your grace.