The Queen’s English

“Define the 1 percent however you want—the upper echelons of commerce, government, culture, academia, even the British royal family—and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that they are paragons of correct usage and good style.” – Steven Pinker, yesterday

It’s funny he should mention it.

To mark this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee, I’ve looked at what the Queen’s English really is.

Every year since 1952, the Queen has delivered a Christmas message, the texts of which are all online. I have no idea whether she takes any advice on language, but – unlike the ‘Queen’s speech’ to Parliament – these messages she presents as her own thoughts in her own words.

I haven’t done a proper linguistic analysis because I wouldn’t know where to begin. What I have done is make a handful of observations about her usage, keeping in mind the ‘rules’ that language sticklers like to enforce. I use scare-quotes because many such ‘rules’ are disputed, declining, dead, spurious, mythical or pointless. Some of the ‘errors’ that follow I personally regard as fine, some I find iffy, and some I recoil from in not-quite-mock-horror.

I present this to illustrate that when people claim to be defending ‘the Queen’s English’, they may well be taking her name in vain.

* * *

Use ‘that’, not ‘which’, with restrictive clauses

She happily uses ‘which’:

  • “The problems which face mankind often seem to defy solution” (1964)
  • “it was the human conflicts and the wanton acts of crime and terror against fellow human beings which have so appalled us all” (2001)

Avoid sentence adverbs (especially ones that cannot be recast as ‘It is [adjective] that…’)

Very occasionally she uses them:

  • “Frankly I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forebear” (1953)
  • “Naturally I see more such people in Britain” (1985)

No ‘hopefully’s, though.

Use ‘each other’ only for a pair (and ‘one another’ for a larger group)

She uses ‘each other’ for a group of any size:

  • “the march of history stops while we listen to each other” (1955)
  • “I hope we will all help each other to have a happy Christmas” (1987)

Use ‘myself’ only as a reflexive pronoun

She sometimes uses it non-reflexively:

  • “For my husband and myself and for our children, the year that is passing has added to our store of happy memories.” (1955)
  • “I’m sure that many of you, like myself, have been impressed by the courage they show” (1981)

With more than two parties, use ‘among’ and not ‘between’

She’s happy to use ‘between’ for more than two:

  • “co-operation between Commonwealth countries grows every year” (1960)
  • “may the New Year bring reconciliation between all people” (1976)

‘Like’ denotes similarity and does not introduce examples

Not according to her:

  • “in times like these” (1961)
  • “children in places like Ethiopia and Sudan who don’t have enough to eat” (1989)

Do not use ‘if’ when you mean ‘whether’

She sometimes does:

  • “Some people are uncertain which star to follow, or if any star is worth following at all.” (1962)

Take great care when placing ‘only’ in a sentence

She doesn’t always:

  • “mankind can only find progress in friendship and co-operation” (1968)

Do not strand a preposition

She only rarely does:

  • “our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on” (1969)

Avoid faulty parallelism in sentence structure

She sometimes doesn’t:

  • “faced far greater difficulties, both in peace and war” (1980)

Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction

She often does:

  • “And further north still live the Eskimos” (1970)
  • “So take heart from the Christmas message and be happy.” (1975)
  • “But to look back in that way is to look down a blind alley.” (1996)

Avoid the passive voice

She uses it a lot:

  • “there is nothing in heaven and earth that cannot be achieved by faith and by love and service to one’s neighbour” (1961)
  • “The results of their kindness will be appreciated by young people” (1977)

‘Different’ goes with ‘from’

She has used ‘to’:

  • “the world was a very different place to the one we live in today” (1991)

‘Might have’ is for a past possibility that did not happen

She uses it as ‘may have’, for something that possibly did happen:

  • “Many of you might have felt a twinge of sadness as we in Britain bade them farewell” (1997)

‘Anticipate’ means ‘take action in expectation of’

She uses it to mean ‘expect’:

  • “King James may not have anticipated quite how important sport and games were to become in promoting harmony” (2010)

‘Forcibly’ means ‘against one’s will’

She uses it to mean ‘forcefully’:

  • “what struck me more forcibly than his physical courage was the fact that he made no reference to his own illness” (1992)
  • “In talking to the veterans, I was forcibly reminded of the detachment with which those personally unaffected by violence can view its effect on others.” (1995)

‘Quicker’ is an adjective

She uses it as an adverb:

  • “time is moving on rather quicker than we expected” (1987)

‘Evoke’ means ‘call up’

She uses it to mean ‘provoke’:

  • “the wonderful response the wedding evoked” (1981)

* * *

But there are a few things to give the sticklers cause to put out the bunting and cheer:

Use ‘who’ for a subject and ‘whom’ for an object

She follows this rule unerringly:

  • “the reality as seen by those whom I meet who live and work in Northern Ireland” (1995)
  • “The veterans of the Second World War whom we honoured last summer can tell us” (2005)

‘None’ takes the singular

Indeed it does:

  • “None of us has a monopoly of wisdom” (1991)

Do not split infinitives

Her Majesty has never split an infinitive. But (if it’s the sort of thing that bothers you) she often drops the ‘to’ from the last of a sequence of them:

  • “the right of citizens to assemble, and to speak and argue” (1964)
  • “the freedom to travel and learn” (1998)

Try to avoid ‘try and’

She tries, she succeeds:

  • “We can all try to reflect that message of hope” (1993)
  • “the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right” (2002)

* * *

And some details of her usage change over time:

Use ‘one’ and not ‘you’ as the indefinite pronoun

After initially favouring ‘one’, over the years she comes to use ‘you’ sometimes:

  • “We all need the kind of security that one gets from a happy and united family.” (1958)
  • “It is no easy task to care for and bring up children, whatever your circumstances – whether you are famous or quite unknown.” (1986)

Use ‘he’ and not ‘they’ for a third person of unspecified gender

She uses the generic ‘he’ a lot for her first two decades:

  • “treat your neighbour as you would like him to treat you” (1970)

But it gets much rarer after that. She never uses singular ‘they’, but there is an occasional singular ‘we’ (no, it’s not ‘the royal we’):

  • “in the end each one of us has a primary and personal responsibility for our own children” (1979)

Respect the first-, second- and third-person will/shall and would/should distinctions, the details of which are surely too obvious to need explaining in this subheading

She consistently uses ‘will’ with second and third persons, and mostly uses ‘shall’ with first person. But as for the equivalent would/should distinction, the last “I should” appears in 1966.

Avoid using contractions

For the first six years, she uses not a single contraction. But the dam breaks in 1958 – “I’m…you’ll…doesn’t…it’s” – and thereafter there’s a steady, if gentle, flow of them.

* * *

A few other observations, made through the mind-numbness that reading 60 Queen’s Christmas messages does rather tend to induce:

  • Her tone is a mix of the formal and the personal. Sometimes these two aspects blend well, although sometimes one (more often the formal) overpowers the other and sometimes there are awkward shifts between the two.
  • Around the early 1980s there seems to be a slight move to a more casual tone, but use of vernacular remains pretty rare (the phrase that most surprised me was 1985’s “there are masses more”).
  • I got a vague sense of growing sophistication up to the 1970s, but I couldn’t put my finger on anything specific. Her words-per-sentence rate, for whatever that’s worth, mostly bobs around the low 20s, with no significant change over time.
  • Some of her vocabulary moves with the conventions of the time: 1965’s “helping the poor, the backward or the hungry” becomes 2009’s “ease the burden of deprivation and disadvantage”.
  • I only noticed three jokes, one of which I’ve now forgotten and one of which may have been unintentional. The other, in 1958, was: “So, between us, we are going to many parts of the world. We have no plans for space travel – at the moment.”
  • On the actual content, this seems to be the winning formula: Christianity is true; families are important; the Commonwealth is great; new technology is impressive; age-old wisdom is valuable; I travel a lot; I meet a lot of people; people are wonderful; bad things are bad; we should all just get along; happy Christmas.

I’ll have my OBE and a stiff drink now, please.

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  • Tom  On June 1, 2012 at 9:33 am

    I’ve been asked about the unintentional joke. It’s this passage, from 1987 (which did actually make me laugh):
    “Every day hundreds of letters come to my desk, and I make a point of reading as many of them as I possibly can. The vast majority are a pleasure to read. There are also sad ones from people who want help, there are interesting ones from people who want to tell me what they think about current issues, or who have suggestions to make about changing the way things are done. Others are full of frank advice for me and my family and some of them do not hesitate to be critical. I value all these letters…”
    I think the picture she’s painting of some of these letter-writers contrasts very wryly with the diplomacy of her tone.
    But she continues:
    “…but there are a few letters which reflect the darker side of human nature. It is only too easy for passionate loyalty to one’s own country, race or religion, or even to one’s favourite football club, to be corroded into intolerance, bigotry and ultimately into violence.”
    Hardly the sort of thing you’d deliberately joke about.

  • Chris  On June 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Looking forward to reading Steve Bell on the regal pronunciation

  • Harry Campbell  On September 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    It would be interesting to know if she writes her own speeches. I somehow feel she does. In fact I hope so: if they’re paying someone to write them, they should be a lot better written! Then again, the strange occurrence of just one clear joke (space travel) over all those years perhaps implies not every word is hers.

  • Harry Campbell  On September 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Oh and thanks for doing this. As the phrase goes, “so we didn’t have to”.


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