"Strictly English" by Simon Heffer is a book which attracted me because I struggled at school with English and thus developed a morbid fascination for the instrument of my childhood torture. Right at the outset, I must say that it is not just a reference book, but a jolly good read too. It is divided into sections which deal with the basic rules of our language, linguistic mistakes (and how to avoid them) and finally a section on good English. He says "The ideal condition of a language is where it allows communication without ambiguity or confusion", a proposition with which nobody could disagree, and the aim of the book is to help the reader to reach that goal in both writing and speech.
I was delighted to find a section on the subjunctive. Not only does he describe this mood of the verb, but he also puts forward a strong case for regretting its demise. On the other hand, it provides very convincing proof that a language can function well without its subjunctive, a point which will doubtless be lost on the Germans, Spaniards, French and Italians who still have it in their mother tongue.
Mr. Heffer expends much effort in his description of the correct use of the relative pronouns 'that' and 'which', after reading which I was quite confused. It is about time that English abolished the distinction in meaning between the two, also between 'shall' and 'will', because it would make life simpler for everybody. Sentences can be recast to express the distinctions which these different forms are supposed to express, but which few people understand.
Mr. Heffer deals beautifully with some of my pet peeves: the sloppy use of `if' instead of `whether', `different to' instead of `different from', and the old chestnut of `less' instead of `fewer'.
The sections on prepositions and on number provide ample proof that language is not logical, and that trying to apply logic to draw up grammatical rules is futile. This rather undermines Mr. Heffer's theme, stated explicitly on page 199, that rules in language are made by logic. Perhaps the better general principle which he puts forward is that long sentences are more likely to contain ambiguities and grammatical errors than short sentences, so short sentences are to be preferred. I doubt that bureaucrats and purveyors of corporate jargon will take note, for their task is to obscure meaning rather than to reveal it. He devotes a whole chapter to their jargon-mongering, and illustrates his points well with three examples of impenetrable prose.
Despite minor disagreements with him, it is a book which I wholeheartedly recommend, not least for its humour. For those who are interested in writing English correctly, the book is an excellent source of advice and information, and if the reader chooses to ignore Mr. Heffer's guidance, then the reader will at least have made an informed decision, rather than a decision based on ignorance.