Top critical review
The Bruce and Ernie Show: pedantic, pompous, pontificating, platitudinous and nit-picking or plain wrong.
on 24 March 2015
Lovers of language, like lovers of all stripes, admire; they do not prescribe. Books like this (this one's recently been rejigged yet again) target the linguistically anxious (or censorious) yet all they do is observe, record and tut-tut. To take just one example of vapidity - they are legion - we are instructed 'do not say 'predecease' for 'die before'. Why ever not? For neutral precision, 'she predeceased him' can't be beat. (Do not say 'beat' for 'beaten'.) Such pomposity is SOOO last millenium
Sir Ernie is fond of flaccid and flaccidity as terms of abuse. He (or can it be Sir Bruce?) talks of the evil influence(!) exerted by 'vague abstract nouns' like measure. An innocuous phrase like 'a fairly tight measure of control' provokes him to the following: 'these measures, whether tight or decreasing, destroy the virility of the writing'. Hmm. I think I see where these guys are coming from, and I'm not sure I want to go there. On page 30 mention is made of 'honest words' (the emotive terminology above was dishonest), of 'harming the language' (subjective, alarmist, prejudiced), Gowers (or is it Fraser?) wants us to write like Churchill (p219). Only Churchill could do that and, arguably, only Churchill should; my model might be Montaigne or Samuel Johnson, were the whole thing not so fatuous
The respectful TLS review purrs that this would be of interest to someone who 'wants to see the latest opinions on the split infinitive'. Well, quite - but to improve your style you'd have been better off curled up with The Rambler for the evening, as would plain-spoken pontificating haut fonctionnaire Ernie himself. (He's called witty by critics of the day. I don't see it. 'A bizarre behind is perhaps what you develop if you do too much fence-sitting' (p222). Not quite Churchill, more Lower Fifth.)
The glossary of words commonly used incorrectly is unhelpful, since it only gives examples of incorrect usage. (How, for example, correctly to use 'transpire'? And why bother, since the informal sense of 'prove to be the case' is now ingrained?) The other ostensible object of the exercise, the eradication of jargon*, is a Sisyphean task - like Japanese knotweed the invasive species will always outstrip in vigour the sober native variety - but don't people just love throwing their weight around, and don't others lap it up? (Not that it helps them write any better.) Pedantry and censoriousness in spades, petty and prissy beyond measure
This dates from 1954, a musty time when men were men and their dads probably wore corsets, filtered through 1973, when 'the latest authorities incline to the view..' (p170); what is it about us agonizing anglophones?! Like buildings, all language acquires charm in the end; if you can discount its pretensions this is best read as a period piece. [In re spelling, the authors don't tell us that pretension takes an s and pretentious a t; it's not a word high-ranking civil servants would ever be called upon to use!]
* When defining jargon (p42, 'the most prevalent disease in present-day writing' continuing for thirty words concluding 'stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory') the wretched man is himself being circumlocutory!