Stop Right There

17th January 2014

Lisa Botwright talks to David Marsh and reviews his new book, For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection

I love grammar. I know it sounds nerdy, but I love the musical timing of a well-placed comma, and flinch when I read comments such as ‘your cool’ on Facebook (no, you’re not!). According to Lynne Truss, whose best-selling book Eats, Shoots and Leaves advocates zero tolerance to sloppy punctuation, I’m a ‘stickler’. Her panda joke (reproduced below) never fails to make me smile.

However, it is still very easy for me to make mistakes when writing. As a student from the seventies and eighties, I’m one of the grammatically adrift generation of pupils taught under the hazy auspices of education policy makers who believed that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression. Therefore, until recently, I had no idea what a subordinate clause was or what syntax meant. I am self-taught, from a passionate love of reading. I can tell when something ‘looks wrong’ only in an intuitive way, similar to appreciating when a glass of wine tastes nice, even though I have no intellectual understanding of oenology.

So when I was asked to review a new grammar publication, For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection, I was immediately drawn to its common sense blurb: ‘A quirky grammar book that explains the grammar you need to know and the grammar you don’t.’ Written by David Marsh, The Guardian’s production editor, the book explains how to get your message across clearly and concisely, pointing out which grammar rules are important for clarity (‘let’s eat, grandma’ versus ‘let’s eat grandma’, for example) and which are pompously outdated and can be safely ignored. For those of us who have forgotten (or were never taught) our ‘who’s’ from our ‘whose’ and when to use ‘that’ over ‘which’, it is a revelation.

David, who also edits the Guardian Style Guide, explained his motivation for trying to tie the subject down: “When I was commissioned to write the book, I jumped at the chance. As a journalist who has also studied the subject (I have a Master’s in English language from UCL), I thought I would have a try at writing a book that would be accessible to the reader from the standpoint of someone who knows a bit about it. I wanted to show that grammar, which has long been regarded as dull, could be fun. Many, perhaps most, people say their English language lessons at school were boring and that they have forgotten most of what they learned. I wanted to write a guide to the basics that they would actually enjoy reading, while learning from it at the same time.”

David even claims that grammar can be sexy: “‘Grammar’ and ‘glamour’ come from the same word, but you would hardly know it,” he continues. It’s true; I looked it up afterwards – and I refer you also to the introduction of his book in which we learn that he was singled out by the prettiest girl in the class because he ‘always came top in the spelling test’

Throughout this fascinating read, he emphasises his point that: “You have to make the most of out what you are given in this life, and while my preferred choices – footballer or rock star – would probably have been a more reliable route to getting girls, a flair for spelling (and later, grammar) were what I had been given. They have been the basis of nearly four decades in journalism and a lifelong quest for grammatical perfection. Or, as you might regard it, messing about with other people’s words to make them read better. This book is the result of that quest.”

Journalism and writing may have been the most natural career routes – career-wise – for David to take, but even for those of us in less linguistically exacting professions, grammatical dexterity is still an important skill to possess. Your boss may read your reports for their content without being aware of your perfect punctuation, but he most certainly would notice its absence. As Lynne Truss says: “Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.” It is the tailored suit and clean shoes of an interview: an expectation only remarked upon when replaced with something incongruous.

But what about the times when a suit and smart shoes aren’t necesary? What if it’s more of a ‘sitting-in-your-pyjamas-updating-your-online-profile’ kind of occasion? David explains: “Language has different conventions which apply to different situations. These are known as registers.” Registers, he tells me, refer to the styles we adopt in different situations: from texting your friends to writing to your child’s form teacher. Jargon is the vocabulary associated with each register and is often deemed inappropriate elsewhere (you’d probably not sign off your child’s teacher’s email with an expeditious ‘lolz l8er’).

Yet language is fluid and continually adapts to become Standard English. It is now perfectly acceptable to use ‘google’, ‘email’ and ‘text’ as verbs; ‘twerk’, ‘selfie’ and ‘geek chic’ all entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. As we adopt new words and new ways of expressing ideas, we also shake off outdated notions of correct grammar usage.

In short, it is fine to have no idea what a predicate nominative is as long as your English is clear and follows the basic modern conventional rules within their appropriate context (or register). And as David stresses: “It's not about thinking you are better than other people because you know what a gerund is; it's about knowing how to get your point across. And in spite of the way some grammar books make it sound complicated, it's not that difficult.”

“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.
The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

'Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation': Lynne Truss

David Marsh will be speaking at St Hilda’s Prep School for Girls, Bushey,
on Tuesday 25 March at 7.30pm as part of the Porthouse series of lectures.

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