The Blagger's Guide To: Grammar
Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's how to write good
Saturday 27 April 2013
The first ever Idler Academy Bad Grammar Awards will be presented on Thursday in "a thrilling X Factor-style" ceremony that will honour "the worst use of English over the last 12 months by people who should know better". Set up by Tom Hodgkinson, they mark the launch by Ebury Press of Gwynne's Grammar by NM Gwynne, originally published by The Idler. The judges – Rachel Johnson, Harry Mount, and Toby Young – have been analysing submissions from official publications, including misplaced apostrophes, malapropisms, and sentences without verbs, and will make their final decision on the evening.
Gwynne's Grammar promises to teach its readers "an effortless command of all aspects of grammar including syntax basics, parts of speech and punctuation", and a writing style that is "crystal-clear, vivid, enjoyable to read, persuasive, even sometimes compelling". It includes the classic text The Elements of Style, a 1918 guide written by a university professor, William Strunk Jr, and later updated by EB White of The New Yorker. The little book has sold more than 10 million copies, gaining fans such as Time magazine and critics including Geoffrey K Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, who deemed it a "toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity". Meow!
The Elements of Style was followed in 1926 by A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler, affectionately known to this day as Fowler's Modern English Usage. Mr Fowler was opposed to artificiality, cliché and pedantry, and was strict about his grammatical rules. He wrote: "The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish ... Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes." They're quite catty these linguists.
Fowler's can be found in the bottom drawer of many a newspaper sub-editor, along with other classic page-turners such as the Cambridge Grammar of English and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. A former newspaper sub, The Independent's Bill Bryson , made his own contribution to the grammar canon in the form of The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words. If you want to keep a sub talking for days, ask him where he stands on the Oxford comma. (Or where she stands on using "they" to avoid "he" or "she".)
So many professional pedants (in the nicest possible way) have contributed to the grammar debate that it's amazing that people haven't got it yet. The Today programme's John Humphrys added his two penn'orth in the books Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language (2005) and Beyond Words: How Language Reveals the Way We Live Now (2007). This means that amateur pedants are never happier than when he makes an error of usage live on Radio 4. ("Media" is plural, John. Just saying.)
The Blagger's personal favourite grammarian is Professor David Crystal. Last year, sales of his book Spell It Out overtook those of Fifty Shades of Grey. He said: "Maybe I should have called the book Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Gray?"
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