I’ve written before (in the answer to question 30 here) about not wanting to become a grammar bully, even as I find that I am becoming increasingly aware of various kinds of linguistic error when I see them. That was over a year ago now, but I remain convinced that I have no firm foundation for criticising others, given my tendency to litter my own writing with mistakes of various kinds (and not all of them the result of typos). I remain convinced, too, that language is fundamentally about communication, and that the only logical reason for objecting to a particular way of using language is if it makes it harder than it needs to be to understand the meaning. I am in complete agreement with Stephen Fry when he argues that language is a living, changing thing, and that attempting to nail it down with rules and restrictions is fundamentally wrong.
And yet, and yet, and yet–– when I see things like this I can’t help but shudder:
My knowledge of grammar terminology isn’t great, and I hesitate, therefore, to put this in formal terms, but I believe the problem here is that the headline writer has used the proper noun when s/he should have used the proper adjective. Even if I’ve got the jargon wrong, the problem itself is clear, I think: the use of the word ‘Italy’ where the word ‘Italian’ was called for. (Or, anyway, that’s one of the problems. I’ve pretty much given up objecting to the use of the present continuous tense in news reporting – I feel it should be ‘has passed austerity law’ not ‘passes austerity law’ – even if I still register it as…well, if not an out-and-out error, then certainly clumsy and rather ugly.)
The thing is this doesn’t seem to be a one-off, so far as the BBC news website is concerned. Over recent weeks I’ve also seen (though not screen-grabbed: sorry) references to the ‘Greece Prime Minister’ and ‘Europe debt crisis’. Now, I understand that headlines are a special case, and that the need to use short forms of words (in order to allow the headline to appear in an eye-grabbing font size) will sometimes take precedence over strict accuracy. If I had only come across ‘Europe’ in place of ‘European’ it probably wouldn’t even have occurred to me to be disgruntled, but ‘Italian’ is barely longer than ‘Italy’ (there’s clearly room for the extra letters in the screen-grab above), and ‘Greek’ actually takes up less space than ‘Greece’. This makes me think that the decision is not being taken on graphical or layout grounds, but for some other reason.
I’m somewhat mystified as to what that reason might be. The term proper adjective may not trip easily off everyone’s tongue (including mine) but I’d guess the concept would be familiar to anyone with even a fairly basic grasp of English. People habitually talk about going to an Indian restaurant, after all, or having a Chinese takeaway, so the idea of using a word closely related to the name of a country to describe something that comes from that country must be reasonably familiar to most. Even if you’ve never run across the word ‘Italian’ or ‘Greek’ before, establishing that these words relate to ‘Italy’ and ‘Greece’ would seem to be reasonably intuitive. Certainly, I find it hard to believe that someone who reads English well enough to understand the word ‘senate’ would struggle to understand the word ‘Italian’. I guess there is some potential room for confusion, in that words like ‘Italian’ and ‘Greek’ are used as proper nouns (for citizens of those countries) as well as proper adjectives, but the chances that anyone would read the phrase ‘Greek prime minister’ and think to themselves “Ok, he’s Greek, but which country is he prime minister of?” would seem slight.
Of course this works both ways, and if I go back to my guiding principle – that the only logical reason for criticising a particular way of using language is if it makes it harder to understand the meaning – then I don’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about this. I was, after all, immediately able to understand that the story related to a legislative body in Italy voting in favour of austerity measures. What does it matter if the headline writers vary slightly from the orthodox in their use of proper nouns and proper adjectives, so long as their meaning is easy to grasp? If I’m not going to be a complete hypocrite, I have to answer my own question by saying “Not at all.” I think I still have a couple of grounds for complaining, though.
The first of these relates to the fact that I’ve seen this particular ‘error’ more than once. This leads me to think it’s not a mistake made in a hurry, or the responsibility of an individual member of staff who doesn’t understand the difference between proper nouns and proper adjectives. If either of those two circumstances did apply, I’d have to be a complete git to complain. Since, however, occurrences like this seem to be part of a trend, it’s likely they’re the result of a conscious decision taken at leisure by someone who understood what they were doing. In these circumstances, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to express puzzlement at why the decision was taken, and to ask what problem or difficulty it was aimed at addressing.
The other ground for complaint is probably less convincing, but more personal. While I freely concede that, if the meaning is clear, there’s no logical reason to object to a non-standard use of language, I don’t think that logical principle prevents me from having a preference for one form of language over another. I mentioned earlier in this post that the use of the present continuous tense in news reporting isn’t exactly an error – it’s a stylistic choice – but that I nonetheless find it clumsy and rather ugly. Much the same is true of phrases like ‘Italy senate’ (or ‘Italy crisis’, as in the headline on this BBC story). I may not be able to argue in good conscience that they are any harder to understand than phrases which use proper adjectives, but I think I can still legitimately say that I find them clumsier, and less pleasing to read.
So that’s what this is, then: not an instance of grammar bullying, just an expression of a personal preference. ‘Italy senate’ just feels wrong to me, somewhere deep in my linguistic bones. I can’t help it.