Correct English: Reality or Myth?

G Marnell, Burdock Books, 2015, 294pp, £17.50 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 99415 020 2

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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This book is one of the most interesting I've read in the 20-odd years since I took up my profession. It is a high heroic counterattack on behalf of those people whose lives have been blighted by the overweening authoritarianism of prescriptive linguists. The author, Geoffrey Marnell, is clearly a skilled, intelligent and experienced writer, and in my opinion his heart's in absolutely the right place.

I'd like to tell you why I think its content and message are invaluable to SfEP members. First, we get to work through a fair bit of logic on the hoof. A good example of this is in Chapter 2, where a logical progression deconstructs the myth of correctness, exposing the inadequacies of dictionary definitions: Marnell's clarity of thought is well illustrated by the simple summary of that deconstruction on p109. Then in Chapter 6 we work through a well-constructed series of arguments on the limitations of electronic readability scores, making it clear why we should pay just as much attention to them as we do to grammar checkers.

Second, the book is crammed with information that I found of great professional interest and will continue to find of help in communicating with an author, because what Marnell has done is put a name to many faults found in writing. Chapter 5, 'The bedrock of good writing', has an analysis of the different types of ambiguity on pp210–13. But there's also information about writing in ways to suit the readership (p214ff), economical writing (p216ff), consistency of both language and punctuation (p225ff), and economy of language (p207ff).

If you ever do any editing for verbosely afflicted writers, Marnell outlines a concept new to me: 'conceptual lightness'. This argues for the comprehensibility of sentences being related not so much to their word count as to the number of their 'chunks of meaning'. He points out on pp220–1 that most readers will find it hard to absorb any sentence with more than four such chunks, quoting the source of his information; a valuable tool indeed for those pruning thickets of dense and tangled verbiage. And, bringing to mind an SfEPLine discussion on scare quotes (a firm favourite with Italian academics), there's a really helpful bit about them on p214. I would challenge any editor/proofreader to read through Chapter 5 without at least one Aha! moment.

Marnell then has a chapter on how he would like to see English taught in the future, in the process demolishing the prescriptives' arguments for 'correct' English; on p279 is a vivid and saddening description of what can happen to people who have suffered from linguistic bullies. What I saw between the lines of this chapter and the Epilogue was a deep philosophy, an outline of a way that the whole of humanity could develop if enough like-minded individuals come together to move beyond the do it right, do it my way basis on which we've (so-called) organised ourselves over the last few thousand years.

Finally, as I see it, the thrust of Marnell's main argument is twofold: first, that it should be the style of the majority rather than the 'prestige' style that becomes the standard of good writing; and, second, that nobody should feel they have to kowtow to those individuals in positions of power who use language to dominate; we should feel free to express ourselves in whatever way we wish. Chapters 3 and 4 contain a good many very interesting points on the fundamental difference in attitude between prescriptivists and descriptivists. I'd be keen to get involved in a discussion on those two points, but luckily for you – I could go on for pages and pages about them – that's for another review. Or maybe an SfEPLine discussion, because the concepts bound up in prescriptivism and descriptivism are fundamental to our profession.

There were some problems arising from an apparent skimping on editing/proofreading. But all in all, a highly recommended book for two reasons: principally for its content, with treasures for any writer, editor or proofreader – but also as a practical demonstration of the problems that can arise when production is compromised. Read it and learn from it!

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