Ben Lowry: The epidemic of bad grammar in Northern Ireland politics

This article by Ben Lowry was published February 9 2012. The online version fell off the internet due to later website changes. It is being republished here in light of new comment on bad grammar:

Monday, 24th May 2021, 12:54 pm
Updated Monday, 24th May 2021, 1:05 pm
In broadcasts or speeches or public appearances and sometimes in writing, politicians consistently mangle irregular verbs, making elementary errors such as saying "have went" instead "have gone". They have have been mocked at times or gently corrected in public, yet they sail on oblivious, writes Ben Lowry

However you feel about Gerry Adams, we can recognise one thing.

He didn’t say of the IRA:

“They haven’t went away you know.”

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Adams’ comment, which was interpreted as smug and knowing, made those who deplore paramilitaries shudder.

There would have been a different sort of wincing if his 1995 phrase, which has achieved longevity, had also helped enshrine the increasingly widespread use of bad grammar.

To get technical for a moment, Adams knew that the auxiliary verb “to have” followed by the verb “to go” in the present perfect must use the past participle “gone”.

Just yesterday on radio, a Stormont minister intended to use the same phrase (“hasn’t gone away”) but used the wrong version (“hasn’t went away”).

A number of senior unionist politicians — all of whom have been to grammar schools — consistently mangle irregular verbs.

These politicians have been mocked in Private Eye, or gently corrected in public or even overtly so, yet they sail on oblivious.

For all the special advisers and press officers and party assistants at Stormont, no-one takes them aside.

Helping an adult master rules of language need not be awkward. The recipient could embrace it in the way that Margaret Thatcher was coached to change her voice or a pensioner might learn a musical instrument.

After all, these are our ambassadors at Downing Street or the White House.

There is an argument that “has went” is acceptable old English, but it is not language that judges or MPs or members of the US congress now utter. At a certain level of society such an error is excruciating, yet every day in the Stormont chamber it is spoken (not spoke).

One minister, Arlene Foster, when welcoming an investment supposedly secured on the back of our superior education, said the company could “have went” elsewehere — Mrs Foster was speaking at a launch in front of the incoming investors.

These blunders are the source of sniping among people who know better, or even sniggering, yet it is rarely discussed openly.

Being concerned about this is not linguistic pedantry about the debatable wrongness of splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition.

This is big, black, blaring bad grammar.

Saying “have ate” instead of “have eaten” sounds to someone in Westminster or Washington as bad as a south Londoner saying “you was walking down the street” sounds to us.

Nor is it academic snobbery. Martin McGuinness did not go to a grammar school and Peter Robinson never attended university, yet they always get irregular verbs correct.

But as a new generation rises to the top of Northern Ireland society, it is increasingly common to encounter senior figures who have no grasp of grammar.

I recall a professional — someone whose skills and sharpness I seriously admire — getting every single irregular verb wrong: “I have went through the deal and I have saw a number of problems and I have spoke to the other side and we have came to agreement ...”

In contrast, on a press trip to Iceland two years ago, I noticed that our bus drivers had impeccable English, as almost everyone in Nordic countries has.

Increasingly aware of the epidemic of bad grammar in Northern Ireland, I listened out for the drivers’ handling of irregular verbs. There was not an instance even of the more common errors — “have broke” instead of “have broken” — that are the norm here.

Instead they got it all right: “... We have gone from the south to the north ...” etc

The blue collar class in those impressive societies can get this correct in their second language. Yet the top of our society cannot get it correct in their only language (how many MLAs speak a second?).

Woeful grammar seems particularly prevalent among unionists, perhaps because Catholic schools are stricter. A former secondary school teacher told me she always corrected bad grammar even in a tough part of west Belfast.

Nationalist politicians are not untainted by the epidemic. John O’Dowd’s failings deserve mention because as education minister he will have to speak in front of pupils. Latterly he seems to have made fewer errors, which suggests he has had assistance — admirable if so.

Mr O’Dowd wants to abolish grammar schools. You wonder if he has a point when there are grammar schools in Northern Ireland from which pupils can emerge at 18 saying “have went”.

What is the point in a school that is supposed to promote academic excellence if pupils can say this daily, perhaps every few minutes, for seven years? Are teachers too embarrassed to correct them? Are some teachers themselves unaware?

A good primary school would have ironed this out well before 11.

As a news editor, I see the language of many students or young journalists seeking experience. I fear the battle to maintain basic standards in grammar is close to lost.

• Nick Garbutt is away

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) was News Letter news editor in 2012, and is now deputy editor

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