Spelling it out for the sake of good English

 

GRAMMAR: LIAM STEBBINGreviews Strictly EnglishBy Simon Heffer, Random House, 322pp. £12.99

THE GREAT Sunday Timeseditor Harold Evans tells a story about a fishmonger with a sign that reads: “Fresh fish sold here.” A friend who can only be a newspaper subeditor, eager for the fishmonger not to waste a word, persuades him to rub out “Fresh”, because naturally he wouldn’t sell fish that wasn’t fresh; to rub out “here”, because naturally he’s selling it here, in the shop; to rub out “sold”, because naturally he isn’t giving it away; and to rub out “fish”, because you can smell it a mile off.

It’s a joke that, in Evans’s book Newsman’s English, pokes fun at the art of editing the written word – an art that, for any serious newspaper, aims to ensure accuracy, clarity and brevity – by showing how wrong the process can go. Newspapers try to avoid mistakes, or at least inconsistencies, of spelling and syntax by adopting rules that together add up to a house style. When several hundred people write for a publication it’s a good idea to be clear, for example, whether they should use the spellings “gurn”, “recognize” and “judgment”, as the Oxford English Dictionarywould have them, or girn, recognise and judgement, as some of its rivals prefer. Which is why many newspapers have a style tsar – or should that be czar? – whose role is to ensure that, presentationally at least, the newspaper speaks with a coherent voice.

That man, for the Daily Telegraph, is Simon Heffer, a columnist and editor whose e-mails to the staff of the London paper (which appear on its website: Google “Simon Heffer’s style notes”) can drip with disdain for any journalists careless enough to have made a dog’s dinner of the language they are paid to pay attention to. “There have been so many literals this week,” went one message, “that I suspect some of you either never could spell, or have given up trying. Perhaps my favourite was ‘hocky mom’, followed by ‘plumb compote’ (bring on the lead poisoning).”

The e-mails caught the eye of a publisher, who asked Heffer to expand on his theme by writing a book. And expand he has, to produce more than 300 pages of instruction on “the correct way to write . . . and why it matters”.

If you have forgotten some of what you learned in your English lessons – or, as Heffer suspects is more likely the case, your school had abandoned the teaching of grammar long before you got there – you’ll probably learn a good deal from Strictly English. This ranges from the basics (and some of the minutiae) of grammar, and nuggets such as the fact that “jargon” originally meant “the inarticulate utterance of birds, or a vocal sound resembling it”, to explanations of the debt we owe prose stylists such as George Orwell. And Heffer is himself a fine writer with a noble aim. As he puts it in his most recent Telegraphe-mail: “When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us.”

He is certain who the Daily Telegraph’s readers are. Strictly Englishincludes advice on how to address the queen of England, when to use the abbreviation “Esq” after a person’s name and even how to spot when a civilian is pretending to be an army officer. (If he asks you to write to him as, for example, Lieutenant Smith “he is certainly an imposter of some sort, and you would be well advised to call the police”.)

Heffer is also clear that the Telegraph’s readers “communicate with each other on writing paper, not notepaper . . . eat their turkey or roast beef for Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner” and “in their houses (never homes) . . . have a drawing room or a sitting room, never a lounge”.

With all this comes the frequent feeling that you’re one of the clots whom a schoolmaster is determined to get through to. At other times Heffer comes across as not so much a schoolmaster as, improbably, a lightly pickled don. He wrote the book during a sabbatical at his old Cambridge college, and his tone sometimes makes you wonder if he and his fellow scholars passed the port more than once around high table as they dreamed up examples of good grammar to appear in the book. “I wouldn’t compare prosecco with Pol Roger,” goes one; “we had some champagne and it made us drunk,” goes another.

Perhaps those are simply the fruit of a very English sense of humour. But the examples get odder. Writing about how to form the plurals of words that entered English from other languages, Heffer remarks: “Some Greek words observe strict etymology in the plurals . . . No-one has yet tried arguing that clitorises should be clitorides, however, so there are limits.” He makes strange decisions elsewhere, too. At one point he declares that “vocal chords” and “spinal chord” are legitimate spellings of “vocal cords” and “spinal cord”. All guides to writing have quirks – that of the Guardianregards “UK” and “Britain” as synonyms, ignoring the politically sensitive fact that one term includes Northern Ireland while the other excludes it, which is an odd lapse for a newspaper that prides itself on its enlightened outlook – but Heffer’s declarations can seem wilfully idiosyncratic.

And he denounces as “barbarous” or “sheer abominations” so many minor deviations from standard English, such as the use of “hopefully” to mean “with luck”, or the use of phrases such as “I saw yourself there”, that you suspect Heffer believes in hyperbole as entertainment. Repeated over more than 300 pages, however, his outbursts quickly lose their force, and we are left too often with the drone of the schoolmaster. As Harold Evans also remarks: “Nothing so distinguishes good writing as vivid economy.”


Liam Stebbing is an Irish Timesjournalist