Thursday


For who the bell tolls



Muphry's Law: If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written. Phew. I am glad to get the press's reworking of Murphy's Law out of the way. It's a bit like something an old rugby master I knew called "getting your retaliation in first". So let's see if we can dodge the various typographical errors, spurious commas and apostrophes, poor grammar and misspellings jostling for inclusion here.

David Marsh's "quest for grammatical perfection" arrives as an OECD report places England 22nd of 24 countries in literacy. This poor performance in English reopens that debate about failing education standards. Employers say today's graduate arrives on their doorstep fresh from university bearing a degree and an alarming inability to use their own language.

Those bosses who say they have to give such candidates "remedial lessons" in basic literacy would do well to insist this book is an essential ingredient of that remedy. For Who The Bell Tolls is a jargon-free, amusing, enlightening guide through the vagaries of English grammar. Marsh is a newspaper production editor and says of his years in journalism: "It's been a lifelong mission to create order out of chaos. Clear, honest use of English has many enemies: politicians, marketing people, local authority and civil service jargonauts, rail companies, estate agents, academics, even some journalists."

Ah journalists; Marsh's career on newspapers has been, he says, spent "turning the sow's ear of rough and ready reportage into a passable imitation of a silk purse". After 30 years on Fleet Street I share his scars. For Who The Bell Tolls could be seen solely as a handbook for journalists, a guide through that strange language called journalese (lawns in newspapers are always manicured for instance) but that would be a waste of the book's talents.

Anyone baffled by syntax and grammar, participles and subjunctives, would benefit from reading this. In his chapter The Wages Of Syntax, for example, Marsh uses song titles to strip English down to its clearest form. Take She Loves You. Little did Lennon and McCartney know it but this is a perfect example of that basic sentence construction: subject (She), verb (Loves), object (You).

Marsh's book is an excellent tool for anyone looking to brush up on language and become a more confident speaker. He offers brilliant advice and shows the rules to follow and those to ignore. Marsh also suggests words and phrases that have no place in journalism. One of his bugbears is "ahead of" instead of "before" and he offers the fervent hope that it will disappear from use. You and me bath David, you and me bath.

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