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Wednesday, 23 June, 1999, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
John's jargon grates on a nation
John Prescott:
Prescott: "Lovely bloke but doesn't do himself justice"
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is the public figure who most mangles the English language, according to a survey on the state of English grammar.

A poll of more than 100 writers, actors and broadcasters from Jilly Cooper to Sue Lawley criticised Mr Prescott, in a study to mark the fourth edition of the Collins Concise Dictionary.

Lady Thatcher: Less irritating than Tony Blair
Lady Thatcher: Less irritating than Tony Blair
One commentator said: "He's a lovely bloke, but expresses himself in a way that doesn't do himself justice." Others said he has "no control of spoken thought", and "no approximation of syntax".

And one picked him after hearing him talk about "the sceptre of unemployment stalking the north-east".

The study also attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair, for his use of "sentences without verbs".

"He should know better than to adopt such barbarisms as 'tasking'," was one comment. The rest of the top 10 most grammatically-challenged offenders were:

  • US President Bill Clinton
  • Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
  • Tory leader William Hague
  • TV presenter Jonathan Ross
  • Sports Minister Tony Banks
  • BBC Radio One DJ Zoe Ball
  • Health Secretary Frank Dobson
  • Broadcaster Chris Evans

Weather forecasters and sports commentators also came in for criticism, with Poet Laureate Andrew Motion saying: "Many football commentators are knowingly and gratuitously illiterate."

E-mail gripes

Zoe Ball: Among top 10 most gramatically-challenged
According to the poll, the language is riddled with misplaced apostrophes, split infinitives, cliches, American forms and political correctness.

Former hostage Terry Waite had a gripe with e-mail.

"I dislike the growing use of e-mail English," he said. "Capital letters are dropped, apostrophes ignored."

More than 90% of those surveyed thought the media should take more care with written and spoken English, while TV and films were blamed for the increasing number of Americanisms in the language.

The use of the present tense in news headlines was criticised, although broadcaster Jon Snow defended his profession.

"I think English is a constantly evolving language," he said. "And I particularly appreciate the development of new adjectives. In television I regard myself as at the forefront of the 'verbless sentence' - where moving pictures are the verb."

Zoe Ball: Among top 10 most gramatically-challenged
Television and films were blamed for the habit of turning nouns into verbs. The use of words such as "to source" was widely condemned, as were teenage slang phrases such as "I'm, like..." and "Excuse me?" as a question.

Diana Treffry, editorial director of Collins English Dictionaries, said: "People responded with enormous enthusiasm, and a great range of opinions were expressed, but what shone through was the concern for good, clear communication rather than simple correctness."

However, the 100 guardians of English grammar did run into problems when it came to spelling, despite most of them claiming that they only made the occasional mistake.

Widdecombe: Top marks in spelling
Widdecombe: Top marks in spelling
A spelling test set by the survey organisers was answered correctly by just four people - one of whom was shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe. The average score was just 50%.

In the multiple-choice test, just 33% of the respondents know how to spell "desiccate". "Rarefy", "supersede", "inoculate", "sacrilegious" and "minuscule" were managed by less than half of the respondents.

"Impresario" was managed by 72%, "consensus" by 76%, "resuscitate" by 72%, and "moccasin" by 80%.

New words, new meanings

The dictionary also lists a number of new words, including "disneyfication"- the process by which historical places and local customs are transformed into trivial entertainment for tourists.

Other new additions include "call centre", "docu-soap", "off-message", "road pricing" and "hedge fund". "Viagra" and "reiki" healing also get a mention.

In food and drink, Chinese vegetable "bok choy" makes it in for the first time, as does the "robusta" coffee bean and "tapenade" olive paste. Existing words given new meanings include:

  • "Ribbon" - a small, usually looped, strip of coloured cloth worn to signify support for a charity or a cause.
  • "Onside" - working towards the same goal.
  • "Bridge" - a device that connects computer networks and sends packets between them.
  • "Access" - the opportunity or right to see or approach someone, such as children.
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