x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A full stop is reached, but the words will go on. Salut!

It was never my ambition to impose a homogenised version of the language, but I make no apology for insisting that any self-respecting newspaper should lay down clear rules of expression.

Thirty years ago, in south-western England, a young couple used their wedding savings to nurse back to good health a Dartmoor pony they had found in a pitiful state, dreadfully neglected and close to death. When I reported on their selfless act, the newspaper for which I worked received a deluge of messages, most including gifts of money, from readers touched by the story and determined that the couple should marry as planned.

In the years that followed, I must have written thousands of articles of one kind or another. None attracted quite the same level of response. Then, in the middle of November 2008, this newspaper published the first My Word column. The feedback from readers, both here and at my website, Salut! (www.francesalut.com), where it has been reproduced with The National's encouragement, was instant. Every week, it seems, my thoughts on language have caught someone's eye. There has been abundant evidence of this on our letters page, but I have lost count of the personal e-mails that have reached me from around the world, the writers supporting me on some points, challenging me on others and seeking my opinion on a few I had not even considered.

British newspaper readers, famously, are drawn to stories about animals, but the English-speaking world as a whole is also fascinated by words. This being my final column, I wish to acknowledge, with gratitude, the rapport this fascination has inspired. I claim no credit for the decision to reserve a small part of The National's Saturday edition for these musings on the use, abuse and eccentricities of the English language. It was a colleague's idea, and he thought of me because, having written a style guide for our young newspaper, I then proceeded to pester journalists about the need to observe its rulings and guidance.

If My Word had been intended as a campaign, it would be judged a failure. Nothing I have said has made the slightest difference to the modern drift towards tabloid ways. "Dumbed down" is a hideous phrase, and not especially modern, but can any section of the media seriously contend that it has not done so? I can even take issue with a staunch champion of elegant English, Dominic Lawson. In a recent feature for the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, he included two instances of a lazy tabloid device - "actor Jack Nicholson" and "Hollywood actress Whoopi Goldberg", without trace of definite or indefinite articles - that he had formally banned when editing The Sunday Telegraph.

Nor, I suppose, have I succeeded in persuading Americans to avoid normalcy when (I say) they mean normality, or "I'm good" when they are feeling well or do not wish to served more food. Perfectly well educated people from the Indian subcontinent still talk cheerfully about wrongdoers being "nabbed". If there has been any decrease in the use of "awesome", among English speakers generally, to describe almost any impressive event or object, it has escaped my attention.

But it was never my ambition to impose a homogenised version of the language. I make no apology for insisting that any self-respecting newspaper should lay down clear rules of expression. Those rules, however, will vary from one publication and, indeed, one continent to another and should be applied with some flexibility. Not every argument advanced in this column would have impressed those grand old grammarians HW Fowler and Eric Partridge. I am not sure how long the Queen's English Society and I would need to debate all our differences.

Columns about words have been known to last for decades. This one did not, in the event, achieve such longevity. But it did manage a respectable total of 77 weeks, without interruption. My last words are that its disappearance will not diminish the scope for lively disagreement on how best we should mind our language. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae