In Defence of English Style: A Language Guide for the Age of 24/7 Journalese
Where is the difference between good English and bad? When we put together a sentence, what is it that makes one set of words more eligible than another?
These are interesting times for anybody who worries about such questions. Traditionalists continue to maintain that good writing or speaking is a matter of remembering and obeying various rigid and timeless rules. Progressives insist that every rule of diction or grammar is an arbitrary and backward imposition and that all forms of English are equally good. It’s not surprising that some people get confused. But false philosophies are not the only problem facing ordinary conscientious English-users. They are also beset by untrustworthy role models. And there are few exemplars worse than the perpetrators of 24/7 broadcast journalese. Perhaps, indeed, the most toxic of all influences on the nation’s language is the BBC News Channel, if only because the corporation is still widely seen as a bastion of ‘proper’ English.
‘If the BBC does it,’ you might think, ‘it must be OK.’ Not so, as R. J. Fallon demonstrates in detail. But the basis of the critique is not the traditionalists’ question-begging distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ English. Instead, going back to the very first principles of word choice and sentence construction, the author establishes clear, simple, and rational criteria of good English style – Are these words meaningful? Are they appropriate? – and shows how a lot of BBC language falls short. Through all this he equips you with concepts and ways of thinking that can be applied to any linguistic dilemma you might encounter, whether professionally or socially.
If this volume also makes you less tolerant of nonsense, at the Beeb or anywhere else, that may not be such a bad thing for the culture of the nation. In Defence of English Style is built on the Orwellian proposition that a civilized society must be one whose public language passes the test of rationality, and in that sense the critique of ‘BBC English’ has implications well beyond linguistics. This is especially true of the author’s essay-length protests against the confusion of ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ – or vice versa – and against the continuing verbal mystification of mental illness. But those polemical pieces are just the plainest manifestations of an insight that illuminates the book as a whole, which reveals again and again that linguistic issues are fundamentally inseparable from social ones.
Will this book interest you?
In Defence of English Style is a book for all thoughtful users of the language and assumes no prior linguistic expertise. In fact it may be of particular interest to the linguistically bewildered, since it proceeds by steps from general truths about language and style to particular truths about word choice and sentence construction.
The author’s method is part of the message: your stylistic dilemmas will more or less resolve themselves if you remember the basic principles. But the book is as critical as it is instructive and will be enjoyed by anybody who has doubts about the calibre of contemporary public discourse or wonders whether ‘BBC English’ is quite what it used to be.
Some of the many questions answered by this book
- Why do we call a spade a ‘spade’ and not a ‘daisy’ or a ‘dildo’?
- What do English words and expressions have in common with wild squirrels?
- Why should we be suspicious of communicators who scorn ‘semantics’?
- Why are we likely to be disappointed if we go to a modern dictionary for ‘correct’ definitions?
- If ‘correctness’ is a will-o’-the-wisp, why should we care about the language we use?
- What can the authors of Gulliver’s Travels and Nineteen Eighty-Four tell us about style?
- What would Swift and Orwell think of the BBC’s own style guide?
- How is true style to be distinguished from the straitjacket of so-called plain English?
- Why should we be wary of scientific metaphors like ‘black hole’ and ‘epicentre’?
- What is the difference between ‘burning down’ a building and ‘torching’ it?
- Why would anybody prefer ‘amongst’ to ‘among’, or ‘stadia’ to ‘stadiums’?
- What might Winston Churchill have to say about the BBC’s Americanisms?
- Will everybody be iconic for fifteen minutes?
- What is English grammar and why does it matter?
- How do the majority of English-speakers resemble deep-sea fishes?
- In what sense do our journalists have a moral duty to cultivate true style?
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