Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The TLS, February 23, 2018

Sam Leith

How to be clear, correct and persuasive on the page
280pp. Profile Books. £14.99.
978 1 78125 476 9

The culture wars of the past sixty years have been fought in many fields, and on the matter of the correct way to write English, the battle still rages. There remain today the linguistic conservative prescriptivists, such as Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss, who believe that the rules of English must be obeyed. Facing them are the liberal descriptivists, such as Steven Pinker and Oliver Kamm, who say that the language should be allowed to evolve, and that many “rules” of grammar are merely conventions and needn’t be adhered to. (These conventions include not ending a sentence with a preposition.)

Sam Leith presents himself as lying between the two camps. His approach in this guide to improving your English is pragmatic. The most important thing when it comes to writing is to make friends with your reader, so how you write depends on who you are writing to or for. The prohibition on the split infinitive is indeed nonsense; English infinitives aren’t directly comparable to  Latin ones, which literally can’t be split. But a potential employer reading your CV might object to them – or to your using “disinterested” where you meant “uninterested”, or “like” instead of “such as”, or starting sentences with “but” – and interpret those usages as signs of a lazy, careless mind. “Knowing your audience is always more important than knowing a set of rules and prohibitions”, writes Leith. This is an eminently sensible approach.

Some may find Leith’s section on grammar somewhat forbidding, especially the part about verb tenses and moods. (Counter-intuitively, the best way to learn English grammar may well be to learn a foreign language, preferably a relatively uncomplicated one such as Italian. This teaches you what every word in any sentence is doing.)Leith’s advice on writing short, crisp sentences is sound, as is the reminder to read more. He excels especially on the importance of cadence and euphony, in making your prose sing. This, too, will endear you to your reader - and it is something that Leith achieves in this first class guide.


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