Good Word Guide: The fast way to correct English – spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage

edited by Martin H Manser (London: A & C Black, 6th ed. 2007): 448 pp, £17.94 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 7136 7759 12.

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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Well, here we have it then. According to the blurb, this book 'provides clear, straightforward answers to all your everyday language problems'.

Over the years I've learned to read and appreciate forewords and introductions. But had I not been writing a review of this book I'd never have got further than page viii. How could anyone let anyone introduce their book with such awful gloom and doom? The first four paragraphs start with 'We fail our children if we do not … We fail illiterate and semi-illiterate adults if we don't … Government fails the poor … An interest in words too often declines into obsessive pedantry …'

By the time I'd read halfway through the foreword, I was ready to bin the book, and I went into the text with a sense of foreboding and a readiness to condemn. However, I'm glad to say I found the text itself helpful on the whole.

Clarifying differences

Editor (or author, according to the copyright page) Manser sets out to clarify differences in usage, all the while being ostensibly non-judgemental. There are some nice distinctions – for example, 'careful users' of the language use certain expressions, and 'some users' or 'many people' 'object to' or 'dislike' a certain word or turn of phrase. Manser avoids saying who these people might be, so the reader may be left guessing – but at least he has flagged the fact that distinctions are made, alerting the reader to the need for possible further research.

Most of the explanations are good, clear and useful. But some are confusing because examples of wrong usage are presented in a very similar way to correct ones. It sometimes took me – even though I already knew the answers – several attempts to work out which was which. It would have been clearer if EFL practice – a line struck through the incorrect example – had been followed.

Prescriptive to descriptive

There are an awful lot of 'shoulds' and 'should nots', and the occasional 'is/is not acceptable'. Acceptable to whom, I wonder? If you seek an 'authority' on language, I reckon we've got one here. My guess is that this project started life as opinion confused with fact, and that in this sixth edition Manser is responding to pressure to become more objective and less judgemental. (I'd be interested to have a look at the first edition to see if my guess is correct or if I'm maligning the poor man!)

So I see this book as a snapshot within his transition from the prescriptive to the descriptive, and because I agree with most of his judgements, my suggestion is … use, but use with caution.

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