Strictly English: The correct way to write … and why it matters

by Simon Heffer (London: Random House, 2010): 322pp, £12.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 847 94630 0.

Reviewed by Imogen Olsen

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Simon Heffer is associate editor of the Daily Telegraph. His despairing emails to colleagues about their grammatical mistakes became popular on the internet, and so he was persuaded to write this general guide to 'good English'. But although we might sympathise with his campaign against sloppy writing in newspapers, most professional editors will find his views too rigid and old-fogeyish.

'While its author recognises the scholarly value of descriptive linguistics,' he explains, 'this book is prescriptive; for it is only by following certain prescriptions that those who wish to speak English correctly will succeed in doing so.'

Shamelessly snobbish

His theme is 'Rules in language are made by logic, not by a democractic vote' (p. 199), but his 'rules' all date from the standard texts written a hundred years ago by C T Onions and the Fowler brothers: the more broad-minded and pragmatic Burchfield doesn't get a look in.

Heffer is shamelessly snobbish, constantly referring to those who disagree with him as 'semi-literate' or 'barbarous' and making comments such as 'The entirely uneducated have no trouble with these words [infer/imply] because they rarely use them.' He fulminates against the poor old greengrocer's apostrophe – 'this ubiquitous and tiresome atrocity' – without seeming to realise that it has an ancient pedigree. And sometimes he's downright wrong.

I started to mistrust him on page 36, where he declares this to be correctly punctuated:

Mr Smith said 'my favourite poem is "I wondered lonely as a cloud"'.

He dismisses 'a friend of Tony's' as 'wrong, for it invites the question: a friend of Tony's what? All one needs to write is "a friend of Tony".' No mention of the idiomatic use of the double possessive, as discussed in Burchfield and recently on SfEPLine.

'Onto does not exist'

He insists that 'none' is always singular: 'The dictionary now says that the use in the plural is common. That does not mean it is correct.' Compare Burchfield's interesting discussion and conclusion: 'Use a singular verb where possible but if the notion of plurality is present a plural verb has been optional since the OE period and in some circumstances is desirable.'

Heffer would have us say 'Neither she nor I am used to that' and 'How appalling an injury!' He states that 'onto does not exist' and that 'in nearly 30 years as a professional writer I have yet to find a context in which the splitting of an infinitive is necessary.'

Some gold among the dross

He's also inconsistent, instructing 'Do not use an archaic phrase unless you wish your readers to laugh at you' while twice writing 'drest' where anyone else would have 'dressed'. He doesn't like 'slang' – by which he seems to mean anything colloquial – but will allow that 'should one be writing fiction, however, it is likely to be impossible to portray a remotely realistic character without recourse to slang in any dialogue.' Phew!

Curiously, he says little about my own pet peeve, the erroneous use of 'whom', as in 'the man whom we hope will attend'. And while there's some gold among the dross – he's good, for example, on the 'promiscuous mutation of nouns into verbs', on jargon generally, both academic and in the public sector, and on the importance of avoiding ambiguity and achieving clarity – there's nothing that can't be found in the books most of us will already have on our shelves.

'Not logical, captain'

Let's leave the last word to David Crystal, whose New Statesman review concludes:

I'm as concerned as Heffer about the need to improve standards of literacy, but this isn't the way to go about it. He condemns the tabloid use of 'shock horror' vocabulary … so what are we to make of someone who describes normal everyday English usages as 'horrific', 'butchery' and 'abomination'? It's not logical, captain.

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