Saturday, August 04, 2007

Do mind the full stops

Each blog note could be a short review of something that I have seen or read, although that would not be very ambitious. However, a few days ago I quoted Melvyn Bragg, Bill Bryson, Robert Burchfield, Anthony Burgess, Lewis Carroll, David Crystal, George Orwell, Stephen Pinker, John Simpson and Lynne Truss all within one short note. I also said that I didn't entirely agree with them. That needs clarification, even correction.

It's probably best if I go one author at a time. Conveniently enough, my list was alphabetical.

Melvyn Bragg wrote The Adventure of English. An excellent book, and an excellent TV series to go with it. Very erudite and very entertaining. Facts. Nothing to disagree with.

Bill Bryson is probably more famous for his travel writing and his countryside campaigns, but I know him best for writing a book called Mother Tongue. Absolutely fantastic writing. Not only informative, funny and educational, but also very easy to read. And I completely agree with him.

Robert Burchfield has written wrote more scholarly accounts of English. I have found them tough going, but they are probably written to be reference guides rather than leisurely reads.

Anthony Burgess, better known for mangling futurespeak in his Clockwork Orange, wrote an awesome book called A Mouthful of Air. It has a very different tack from the others mentioned here as it concentrates on how words developed, how they are spoken instead of how they are written.

I leafed through David Crystal's books expecting a very prescriptive approach, and instead got a refreshing emphasis on clarity and precision of meaning, not an edict on grammar. Excellent.

Lewis Carroll was in the list on behalf of his alter ego, the legendary Humpty Dumpty. Jabberwocky is perfect poetry. Words can mean exactly what you want them to mean. A genius. The Douglas Adams of his generation.

A very different kind of genius, George Orwell is a true inspiration. Keep it simple. Never use a long word or a long sentence when a short one will do. Every journalist and politician and management consultant should pass a test in this before any public pronouncement.

And so to the books of Steven Pinker. In my opinion simply the best non-fiction written in America since 1792. The pages are fairly dense but the ideas, like all great ideas, are blindingly obvious. They are not specifically about English. But they are about grammar, about language, about communication, about what it really means to be human.

So we have had the clarification, what about the correction? Lost for Words echoes George Orwell in its hatred of deliberate obfuscation, but it also has a load of grumpy old moaning thrown in. It was written by John Humphrys. Did I really say John Simpson? How could I have confused the two? One is a highly-respected deep-voiced silver-haired BBC journalist …

It's almost lunchtime and I have a busy Saturday. I need to eat, post and leave. So I will conclude this little note by quoting some Pinker: Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since ...

1 comment:

Rana said...

Just met David Crystal at the "Technology for Marketing" conference!

Still think there is opportunity to bring much more linguistics and semiotics into marketing, but my ideas are still to be properly crystallised (sic)