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Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write...and Why It Matters

Geoff Pullum lambasts an archaic guide to English that is long on attitude but short on accuracy

Simon Heffer enjoys writing in the manner he imagines was current around 1900. Heaven forfend that I should deny a man his private pleasures. But setting out a cavalcade of rules that standard English does not comply with and never did, and representing them as instruction in how to write today, is dishonest. Some linguistic masochists may delight in letting Heffer bully them into compliance with his whims and peeves; but I see this obtusely atavistic book as a perversion of grammatical education.

Part One, "The Rules", trots out familiar 18th-century naive grammar of a stripe that was discredited decades ago (a noun "is the name of something", an adjective "is a word that describes a noun"). Part Two, "Bad English", lambasts words, phrases and writers Heffer dislikes. Part Three, "Good English", lauds his heroes.

It is the staggeringly erroneous claims of Part Two that shock me most. They are based on longstanding ignorance: the works in Heffer's brief bibliography are almost all from before he earned his BA in 1979. On average they date from more than 65 years ago. He seems uninformed by any modern work on English grammar.

"No educated American would blink", he believes, at if I be wrong (for if I am wrong). No American from before about 1900, maybe.

Volcanologists warn that an eruption is imminent is ungrammatical, he warns firmly. So is If he kissed me I would scream, and It's only me, and I walked into a lamp post.

He holds that the modal verb can has only the physical-ability meaning (so if anyone capable of motion asks "Can I kiss you?", the correct answer must be "Yes"). He thinks not John is a negated noun.

These aren't minor, forgivable slips; they are outrageous, whales-are-fish howlers.

Unfortunately, we would be wasting our time discussing them with him; he speaks ex cathedra. "As a professional writer, I happen to believe that the 'evidence' of how I see English written by others, including some other professional writers, is not something by which I wish to be influenced," he says.

As he said in The Daily Telegraph (20 August 2010), "English grammar shouldn't be a matter for debate."

No point, then, in observing that they with singular antecedent, which he calls "abominable", is found ("We can only know an actual person by observing their behaviour...") in the writings of George Orwell, whom Heffer calls "the finest writer of English prose". The rational conclusion from the usage of such a fine writer would be that they allows indefinite singular antecedents in standard English. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Austen and dozens of other great writers confirm this. But evidence is not something by which Heffer wishes to be influenced.

There will be no debating his stubborn insistence that none is strictly singular. That implies the ungrammaticality of None of us are perfect - a line uttered by Canon Chasuble in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Heffer must class Wilde as ignorant of English or assume he deliberately represented Dr Chasuble thus. Neither is plausible. But this is merely evidence, so Heffer would ignore it.

"Lest never takes a subjunctive auxiliary such as should, would or might," says Heffer, in a truly daring excursion into fantasy (just google "lest it should" and see what you think).

Heffer is blind to textual evidence even when he himself exhibits it. His long and ill-explained section on that and which insists that which is forbidden in restrictive relative clauses. (This classifies Franklin D. Roosevelt as a grammatical nincompoop: remember "a date which will live in infamy".) But he overlooks his third colophon quotation, Samuel Johnson defining grammar as "the art which teaches the relations of words to each other".

Roosevelt and Johnson knew the rules of standard English perfectly well. Henry Watson Fowler (Heffer's chief scholarly influence) knew them too, and accepts that which commonly introduces restrictive relatives in good literature. Fowler wanted to start a movement to change this (he was a radical!) - and Heffer is falsely claiming that the reform succeeded (it did not).

Descriptive linguists are often charged with being "liberal" on grammar, as if their goal was lax enforcement or abandonment of rules, while pedants glory in the role of conservative defenders of educational values.

But there is nothing conservative about bone-headed ignorance. Linguists love rules; but they care enough to believe that there is a fact of the matter about whether a given set of rules is correct.

Peddling fictive rules is not a defence of writing standards; it is an intellectual abdication. Heffer should be ashamed of himself, and Random House should be ashamed of this book.

Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write...and Why It Matters

By Simon Heffer

Random House, 352pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781847946300

Published 9 September 2010

Readers' comments (1)

  • How happy I am to see someone take on this kind of nonsense. Unfortunately, it will be held up by the pedants as "proof" of their superiority. Although I haven't seen the book yet, would you mind if I use extracts from your review of it in a post on my blog Word Nerds? (http://www.wordnerds.co.za) I will, of course, link back and credit you and this article.

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