In Defence of English Style: A language guide for the age of 24/7 journalese

RJ Fallon (Cross & Vine, 2020), 283pp, £10.00
ISBN 978 1 99 969860 7

Reviewed by Wendy Toole

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RJ Fallon worked in publishing for 25 years, during which time he always felt that ‘the heart of the project was the allegedly humdrum work known as copy editing’. Finally, however, he was ‘driven to distraction by the intolerable wrestle with other people’s words and meanings’ that this work involved and concluded that it was time for him to give it up and move on. Despite his background, In Defence of English Style is not aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at copyeditors. He claims that it will be useful to ‘anybody who wants to write or speak better English but isn’t sure how’. He acknowledges that some exceptional users of language won’t need his advice but implicitly throws down the gauntlet to others who merely ‘­think they know it all’ and ‘will not warm to anything that defies their misconceptions’. In this book, the advice he offers on vocabulary, diction and grammar is threaded through with a personal criticism of their use by the BBC News Channel.

Drawing on Swift and Orwell, the first chapter of the book discusses stylistic theory. The second chapter considers meaning, register and what the author calls ‘careful’ English. He defends the ‘traditional’ sense of words against ‘modern abusages’ and takes the News Channel to task for its ‘careless flirtations with lowlife slang’ and ‘occasional super-average genteelisms’. A substantial section of the chapter is taken up with discussion of ‘the most vexing lexical curiosities’ the author has encountered on the News Channel. Included, for example, is a subsection more than two pages long on the term ‘Dignity’: while the author concedes that its use by the News Channel is ‘consistent with fashionable usage in the field of health and social care, not to mention human-rights discourse’, he considers it an example of ‘verbal garbage’. The term ‘Gender’ is given only a few lines here, but the author notes that there is an ‘essay-length discussion’ in the next chapter that explores the ‘widespread verbal confusion’ surrounding it.

In the third chapter, the author puts forward his point of view on ‘foreign’ expressions. Among these he includes ‘BBC Americanisms’, which, in his opinion, ‘have the same disruptive effect as Latinisations and Frenchisms’. The chapter includes another lengthy sequence of subsections devoted to tautologies, pleonasms and other misuses of language.

While chapters 2 and 3 are concerned with vocabulary and diction, chapter 4 focuses on grammar. The author identifies, on the one hand, English-speakers who are nervous, and assures them that grammar is really not that complicated; and on the other, those who are confident, and warns them that ‘their favourite prescriptions may in fact have nothing to do with genuine grown-up grammar’. His professed intention is to avoid ‘specialist grammatical terminology’ of the kind that makes people afraid, and instead to use ‘reason and logic’. There is more to good style than good grammar, as he acknowledges, but ‘there can be no good style without it’ because ‘bad grammar makes for bad communication’.

Fallon states explicitly that he does not intend In Defence of English Style to compete with reference works. His book certainly has neither the logical layout and structure nor the succinct clarity of a good style guide. However, it has potential value as a handbook because of the detailed and lengthy discussions of various points of grammar and usage that it contains. Among those of us who edit and proofread for a living, as he once did, Fallon suggests that there may be some ‘who privately struggle with the finer points of language but […] don’t feel able to confess it publicly by seeking help’. The book will be of less use to such ‘unfortunates’ than it might have been as it lacks an index.

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