You can’t have it both ways

PUBLISHED: 13:36 11 May 2007 | UPDATED: 22:47 28 May 2010

It was the second time I d noticed it. The first time my wife, obviously immune to my sounding off about such things, smiled and quietly agreed with me before changing the subject. The second time it was totally different. I was with a friend as we pulled

It was the second time I'd noticed it. The first time my wife, obviously immune to my sounding off about such things, smiled and quietly agreed with me before changing the subject.

The second time it was totally different. I was with a friend as we pulled into a service station to fill up the car.

I pointed to the sign at the end of a line of fuel pumps which stated: 'Please us both lanes'.

"A bit of a tall order," I said knowingly. "I wonder how they expect me to do that?"

My friend didn't seem to understand what I was talking about. If he did he certainly didn't see it as a major issue.

I then got on to my traditional high horse and launched into what was clearly an unnecessary explanation. "It should say 'please use either lane'," I asserted patronisingly. "How can a car travel down both sides?"

He countered with an exasperated smirk, pointing out that it certainly could if it made two visits.

"But it's not good English," I persisted. "We really shouldn't accept it by default."

I added, in order to reinforce my case, that the sign reminded me of one I came across at a railway level crossing many years ago, which stated: 'Beware of trains coming from both directions at once'.

I also recalled for his benefit the journalists' classic syntactical example - how 'a blue lady's bike' should actually be 'a lady's bike'.

My friend took the point about the blue lady and finally acknowledged that the fuel station sign was incorrect. But his view was (and still is despite a lengthy debate) that because everyone knows what the sign means it really doesn't matter all that much.

Doesn't matter? The alternative is to accept that we will degenerate into grunting and prodding each other to get our views across.

I know many of you will say that some of our youngsters communicate in this way already. But should we accept t? Should we accept the steady devaluation and erosion of our language?

Is it good enough just to "know what it means" or, as the language degenerates even further, to "think we know what it means".

Answers, please to Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Whitehall . . .


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