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Customer Review

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Generally sound, but better guides are available, 3 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Oxford Guide to Plain English (Paperback)
The advice offered is usually sound, but the topics aren't treated evenly: Some pages are filled with waffle, while important points aren't discussed in enough details. I apologize for the long review that follows, but I have tried to give some concrete examples of the weak points. A guide that I would recommend instead is Strunk and White's 'Elements of Style', which is much more concise, and while it doesn't discuss the same range of topics, it is infinitely clearer and more useful. It also promotes plain English (and does so in a more sensible way, I would say). I thought that I would learn something new from Cutts' 'Plain English', which is more than twice as long and includes chapters about planning, revising, email, and web, but the corresponding points were less clear, and the ones not present in 'Elements of Style' were nearly useless. Here are some examples of what disappointed me:

* In some cases no useful advice is given.

(1) The whole chapter about punctuation lacks a clear systematical approach. 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White give much clearer advice on about 13 pages. Instead of clearly explaining guidelines for structuring sentences using punctuation, the 'Plain English' guide includes unnecessary examples of misuse of punctuation and then discusses relatively unimportant issues, for instance on ellipsis (p. 95):

"There should be three dots in the ellipsis, not two, five, or seven. However, a book reviewer tells me that when a phrase trails off unfinished, the US practice is to use four dots." [...] "Some typesetters insist on adding a fourth dot when a sentence ends with an ellipsis [...]".

Instead the author should have chosen one approach and explained it. For some reason, a short section about capitals (uppercase) have been added to this chapter, perhaps because it would need to be expanded to stand on its own.

(2) When advocating split infinitives, Cutts focuses on examples of good use of them, but does not explain how to decide whether the split infinitive is appropriate in a particular context. In a list of split infinitives he spotted in Daily Telegraph (which normally tries to avoid them) since 1995 he includes "resigned myself to never experiencing". But this a gerund, not an infinitive, and other word order would not make sense. (In the previous section he pokes fun at a teacher who confounded adverbs and preposition, and doesn't forget to mention him by name.) More importantly, all this is unnecessary waffle, instead of really useful guidelines.

(3) The chapters on email, web and layout either should not have been included or should have been confined to basic points and explain them clearly. In "Good practice with email", Cutts advises to delete "Re" from subject (which he calls "heading") if automatically inserted by the email software. Does he know that this is a standard way of indicating a reply? One page is devoted to abbreviations (such as "u" for you, "pls" for please) and emoticons which are "better to avoid in semi-formal or formal emails". In the chapter about web, he gets into technicalities without explaining them or even referring to them correctly (for instance "alt tag"). (There are some useful guidelines in the chapter, but they are lost among technicalities and things that should really belong to different chapters.)

* Occasionally, the author gives an unconventional recommendation without explanation:

For instance on p. 80: "There's no need to use full stops in people's names or in abbreviations or acronyms -- Mr J C Bennett, [...] eg, ie, 8am, 9pm -- unless there's a genuine change of ambiguity [...]". I can't see how this improves clarity. I also wonder why the author uses a full stop in "etc.", while he does not recommend it in "e.g." or "i.e.". The same goes for punctuation in vertical lists and many other minor topics.

* The word lists are nearly useless.

I would expect word lists to get more attention in a book that boasts "expert advice on vocabulary" in the first point on its back cover:

(1) The "Plain English word lists" (p. 22) suggests that you replace "polemical" with "controversial", "category" with "group", etc., to avoid sounding "pompous, officious, and long-winded". Of course, one shouldn't not misuse "polemical" for "controversial", but replacing "polemical" with "controversial" does not make sense either. I understand the author's point, but the list without further explanation isn't very helpful.

(2) The list "Words often confused" (p. 36), which lists "similar-sounding words", includes among its meagre 16 entries both words as unlikely to be confused as "hone/home" and words that are not confused because of similar sound such as "imply/infer". The choice seems haphazard.

(3) The "Foreign words" list (p. 39) lists "per diem" as "per day" and "pro forma" as "form", while the former is often used as a noun meaning "daily allowance for living expenses" and the latter is often used as an adverb or adjective meaning "(done) as a matter of form". Again, the choice of words seems haphazard. It isn't clear who should use the table. If used to revise someone else's writing without being familiar with the words, it could cause more harm than good.

(4) The lists of "commonest words" in the appendix, which are meant for checking whether a word is common enough, are not in alphabetical order. Useless for searching.

PS: Please, do not beat me for my English: I'm not a native speaker and I'm sure that there are a lot of mistakes and awkward wordings in this review. By the way, I found it remarkable that while the author promotes writing for wide audience including non-native readers, the book itself is written without non-native readers (i.e. writers who would read the guide) in mind. It is quite difficult even for an advanced non-native speaker to decide what is plain, but appropriate, English, and to avoid being pompous when trying to be formal. A chapter specifically targeted at them (us) would be very helpful.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Feb 2011 00:10:28 GMT
Thank you so much, Mr Nohejl, for such a comprehensive and thoroughly useful review. I am a freelance scriptwriter and copy-editor, and am currently upgrading my collection of reference books. I do appreciate the time and effort that you put into your review; it let me know that I would probably find the book rather irritating. Thank you for sparing me the annoyance! I am about to search for 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk and White, and shall buy it on your recommendation - thank you.

Kind regards,
Diana

Posted on 28 Aug 2011 23:29:44 BDT
Thank you very much for your detailed review. I appreciate the time and effort that you put into studying the book and writing such an excellent review. While Mr Cutts' style is quite witty, he does his best to deflate officialese [his terms]. After 20 pages, the noveltly wore off and I started to yawn.

Best regards
Ona Akemu

Posted on 19 Oct 2013 14:58:01 BDT
Cutts' book is the best writing guide I have read.

Before buying Strunk and White please read: http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497
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