Large Fry

I’ve noted before that our household includes enthusiastic applause for Stephen Fry; today I add that Language Log has dedicated a post to two Stephen Fry video clips (I’ve seen them before; I thought I had linked to them, but I can’t find the post if I did) and a post from his redesigned blog in which he repudiates his former public fussiness about grammatical details.
I still treat “none” as singular, I distinguish “less” from “fewer,” I still advocate grammatical and syntactical precision, and I don’t even split infinitives, but Fry is surely correct to take high-profile grammar enforcers down a peg or two. Intelligible discourse — and especially, as Fry suggests, pleasurable discourse — can operate adequately with gleeful disregard for the decrees of Grammar Puritans. At the same time, however, many people who hasten to claim that cavalier prerogative would do better to learn to use words more precisely first. Fry cites the example of Oscar Wilde’s note to his editors, that “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” — but Wilde did not say, “Don’t change a thing, woulds and shoulds don’t matter,” and Wilde knew better than almost anyone who has written in English how to deploy words for maximal pleasure.

9 thoughts on “Large Fry

  1. One of my favorite examples of this flexibility between play and structure is found in Constance Hale’s little book Sin and Syntax. It also remains the only truly funny book I’ve ever read about English grammar and writing style.

  2. Aside from my most disliked misuse (lay for lie) a close second is everything big being characterized as an enormity. Awful sentence!

  3. AKMA: delighted to hear of your love of Stephen Fry. First Billy Bragg, now Stephen Fry! Can’t wait to find out what (or rather who or even Who?) is next! The first of the Youtube clips you point to is, as you may be aware, from a British panel game called Q.I.; the blog to which you link may not realize that a large part of the charm of the series is Stephen Fry bating Alan Davies (the other guy you see in the clip) who tends to play the part of the everyday, no nonsense man who makes predictable remarks and who enjoys arguing against Stephen Fry’s pedantry.

    At the moment, we are enjoying a wonderful series on BBC1 called Stephen Fry in America. There is a short video about it on The Guardian here.

  4. Margaret and I are great Who fans, too; we were involved in a newsworthy scrum for tickets to their first “farewell” tour, after which Margaret was actually interviewed on a local Pittsburgh news program. (The clueless arena officials said, “We didn’t have this kind of problem when people lined up for Neil Diamond tickets….”) I haven’t paid much attention to the late-model Who, though; without either Keith Moon or John Entwhistle, it’s hard to sustain the appeal.
    Now, on to the next topic: maybe the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band? Josiah is a huge Eddie Izzard fan, but I never really fell for him. The Proclaimers? Maybe too Scottish for you. Pippa went through the whole series of Absolutely Fabulous last year; I’m an long-standing admirer of the Ealing comedies.

    1. I am willing to moradete my criticism, you are pointing at some relevant issues there, I agree. Stephen Fry is a sensible man and his opinions are well worth listening to, especially in times of overmedication and Big Pharma along with National Health Care operating sometimes on the edge of basic human rights. But he is an artist, and his worst nightmare would probably be his creativity taken away, so I was not surprised when he concluded that he wouldn’t be medicated “for all the tea in China”. The button question was exciting, but wouldn’t more socially challenged interview objects have pushed it? (All in all it was a stunning documentary, indeed.)

  5. Oh, right — that Who. Well, as I’ve told you, Pippa is a beginning Whovian, and I might be susceptible myself if I had some sustained exposure.
    I’m much more rock’n’roll than BBC-TV.

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