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I have written annual reports and like documents. I have aimed always for clarity - ...
on 21 September 2014
Who buys books about the use of English? What do buyers expect and in this case, does the book fulfill their expectations?
I am a retired scientist. I have published many papers, and reviewed and edited papers by colleagues, I have written annual reports and like documents. I have aimed always for clarity - to inform not to impress. I have taken to writing essays; whether or not those are well written you may judge for yourself should you so wish, by entering Philip Symmons on Google. I have on my shelves a number of manuals and books on the use of English.
I would have thought most of those who have bought - or who contemplate buying - For Who the Bell Tolls would be roughly like me. They need, or wish, to write and hope to write clearly. They would expect to be made aware of faults that they might make. They would hope to be helped to write better and at the same time to be entertained. They might be concerned about practices by others that impede communication - politicians who are deliberately ambiguous and managers who appear to wish to avoid saying anything comprehensible.
However, Marsh does not appear to have decided who he was writing for or, to put it another way, what sort of book he intended to write. For Who The Bell Tolls gives the impression of having been cobbled together from what Marsh had lying around. The book ranges from the basic to the mildly esoteric; from the useful to the merely diverting. Chapter 1 contains basic information that anyone who cares enough to buy the book would know. Someone who needs to be told that “sentences comprise clauses, phrases and words” is not likely to be bothered by the difference between infer and imply.
The same lack of clear purpose is shown by the listing of commonly misspelled words and of pairs of words that, according to Marsh, are commonly confused. A spell checker will pick up the former. The latter also are likely to be misspellings. If I ordered a burgher from McDonalds I think meat inside a toasted bun would still be more likely to turn up than a worthy Dutchman.
The whole book is written in a jokey style with references to pop groups of some years back not known to me - but that goes for all pop groups. It is also full of personal asides. The result is irritating and long-winded; the book could do with severe editing. (Editing might also remove mistakes. “Singular “they” or “there” is much less clumsy than “his or her”.”) The following is an example of what I mean. “Stubbornly to resist splitting infinitives” …“to leave adverbs staggering haplessly around the sentence like the odd toddler out in a game of musical chairs is not just half-baked: it is fully baked, with a fried egg and a slice of pineapple on top.” If splitting infinitives is O K why not write, “To stubbornly resist”? Half-baked means not thought through. Why is thinking something through to a conclusion like adding a fried egg and a slice of pineapple? You need to be agile and quick to play musical chairs; toddlers are neither. Toddlers cannot play musical chairs. A player who fails to bag a chair does not “stagger about haplessly” but sits at the side, and the music restarts. This is, like so much of the book, a desperate attempt to be amusing; but it is ill thought out - it doesn’t work.
Chapters 7 and 8 (Pretentious moi? and Attack of the Jargonauts) are in the main preaching to the converted. Those who go in for foreign phrases or management-speak are not likely to read Marsh. Foreign words for which there is no English equivalent are surely permissible; for example esprit de corps and schadenfreude. Perhaps those will become English in time. Latin plurals are as Marsh says, a matter of usage and are not always pretentious.
Orwell’s Politics and the English Language said something that I feel needed saying. However, neither that essay, nor previous and subsequent attacks, appear to have changed politicians’ devious way with words. Managers though are presumably trying to say something not to avoid saying anything. Avoiding saying anything requires a perverse skill but making yourself understood is relatively straightforward. At some level within management gobbledygook must be thought to be what is needed. Someone at a senior level within the railways must think that the curious language of announcements is desirable. How does this come about? How do estate agents all come to describe houses as “beautifully presented”, “deceptively spacious”, and "boasting" and “having the benefit of” various things? (I am tempted to write, “the benefit of”!?) Listing these faults will not cure them. Primaries though might result in candidates with some independence not just ones chosen by central office for their loyalty. Management-speak and jargon will have to be tackled at school. I suggest that pupils should be required to convert examples of both into English and also edit each others work. Spotting the motes in others eyes might make students more aware of the beams in their own. In later life they might resist the temptation to write portentous nonsense.
By the way gourmand does not mean glutton- at least not in France and the French ought to know. Sault de Navailles, a few km away, has a large sign on the outskirts reading “Village Gourmand”. Michelin’s Bib Gourmand indicates an “Establishment offering good quality cuisine at a maximum price” not ”All you can eat for E15”.
I think it is a pity that Marsh did not deal with metaphors, similes and euphemisms in more detail. I would have welcomed examples of metaphors used incorrectly. I suspect I make mistakes where I do not think of - or do not know - the original meaning. As Orwell pointed out, it is the hammer that comes off worse not the anvil. ”The die is cast”: gambling or metal founding? “Barking up the wrong tree”: hunters with dogs or lumberjacks? You can be sure that a mixed metaphor comes from scrambled thought. I recall an official in Australia saying that something- I forget what – would “snowball like a bush fire”. I know what he meant just as I understand the great Ernie Bevin saying – although it is not certain he did - “If you open that there Pandora’s Box you’ll find it's full of Trojan horses”. He might have had devolution in mind.
Marsh I think overestimates the efficacy of euphemisms. Words that start out as descriptive, whether honest or devious, soon become names. Breakfast is just the meal you have after getting up. English is full of such words. Stonehenge is that prehistoric site west of Salisbury. (I had to look up henge.) In much the same way, extraordinary rendition means kidnapping and taking to a place where torture is allowed. It is now a name. No one has any doubt what ethnic cleansing means. Euphemisms don’t work, at least they don’t work for long.
I have a few other gripes. Marsh is not a scientist. I am not interested in his views on global warming. Climate change has replaced global warming not because of capitulation to climate “skeptics” but because the world has not got warmer of late although the climate would seem to have changed. I assume it is just the Kindle version that renders “In” at the start of a paragraph as “I n” and. C S Lewis as CS Lewis. Botswana is not twice the size of Wales but roughly 28 times.
Is this a good book? No I don’t think it is. Do I regret buying it? No I don’t. It didn’t cost much. I learnt a few things that are useful and I liked learning a few that are not: I did not know that supine means face up although I have lived happily not knowing. The book passed the time .