Published at 5:29PM, August 29 2014
What is a good book to read on style? There are many to choose from.
I often cite favourably Fowler’s Modern English in this column. Yet
there is an oddity in this literature. You would imagine that, if there
were a single set of rules about usage, one manual would be enough
to tell you what they are. Instead there are many (often
incompatible) sources of advice on how to write.
I like Fowler, but he suffers from a mistake common to almost all
writers on usage. He imagines that his role is to tell people what the
rules are, but he doesn’t stop to examine how people do in fact use
the language. Linguists work out the rules of grammar from the
evidence of general usage.
There is one book I can unreservedly recommend as a guide on how
to write well, because it is founded on evidence. It’s by Steven
Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, and it’s
called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in
the 21st Century. It’s published in Britain next month. A review by
Paula Byrne (which I haven’t yet read before writing this column)
appears in our Books section today.
I declare an interest, in that I commented on an early draft of the
book, but I would be failing in my duties as a language columnist if I
didn’t give my honest opinion that it’s an outstanding source of wise
advice. Pinker cites the findings of cognitive science, which he
explains in an accessible way, to yield insights into the difficult task
of writing well.
Pinker has recommendations, all right. The longest chapter of the
book is entitled “Telling Right from Wrong”. Yet he notes that most
books on style are about supposedly “correct” usage rather than
grace, clarity and coherence. Those criteria are the crucial test of
how to write well.
Why is so much academic writing so bad? You recognise the type of
This week"s columns
Tuesday, September 02, 2014 7:45:20 AM
The Pedant: enjoy a conversation to
escape the curse of knowledge
to communicate the meaning, let alone the excitement, of it to
general readers. It’s not because they make “mistakes” such as
using disinterested as a synonym for bored. You can adopt every
recommendation of a prescriptive grammarian — even a wise and
informed one like Fowler — and it won’t make you an effective
writer. It’s much more important, argues Pinker, to escape what he
calls the curse of knowledge — overestimating how recognisable
certain terms and concepts have become.
I can relate to this. The best piece of advice I’ve ever had on
professional writing was from James Harding, then editor of The
Times, when I joined as a leader writer in 2008. The big news story
was the banking crisis. I knew the technical details very well and
wrote many columns on the same subject. They weren’t very good.
James, having listened to me in leader conference one day, urged me
to write down what I’d just said — literally what I’d said and how I’d
said it, instead of trying to affect a tone of gravity appropriate to the
subject. Writing as if you’re having a conversation with someone
who knows at least as much as you do, but different things, is a
valuable corrective to the curse of knowledge. As a guide to writing,
it’s more useful than following made-up rules about when to
use less and fewer, or hanged and hung, and the rest of the pedants’
However satisfying it may be to criticise other people’s supposed
solecisms, that pastime has little to do with the cause of clarity and
style, and it often misunderstands grammar too.
The witches of Bideford deserve
to be pardoned
nature spirits to help people with their healing processes,” explained
the organiser of a witches’ protest in Exeter last week.
It’s hard, for me at least, to suppress a snigger. Yet the coven merits
the support of us hidebound empiricists. They seek an official
pardon for three residents of Bideford in Devon who in 1682 were
the last women in England to be hanged for witchcraft.
The women are admittedly far beyond restitution and the occult was
once a part of everyone’s mental universe. A performance in Exeter
of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, written in 1588, had to be
abandoned when the actors realised that “there was one devell too
many amongst them” and headed in panic for the doors.
Yet the Bideford women were hanged when witchcraft had already
become a staple of entertainment rather than of fear. Witch-like
characters were sympathetic anti-heroines of European literature.
Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen, the great German
writer of the 17th century, created a character called Courasche — a
sort of older and sexually experienced version of Becky Sharp
in Vanity Fair — who is falsely accused of witchcraft by soldiers who
The prosecution of the Bideford “witches” wasn’t only an injustice
but an anachronism. Their era, at the onset of the age of the
enlightenment, is continuous with ours. Women who were so broken
that they didn’t even deny the charges aren’t merely the detritus of
Blue is now the most common eye colour in Britain. Scientists
speculate that while eye colour confers no evolutionary advantage,
blue eyes — like a peacock’s plumage — may be more attractive to
potential partners. Yet how other people see colours is a matter of
wonderment to me. I don’t get it.
There is an early novel by Thomas Hardy called A Pair of Blue Eyes,
in which the young protagonist, Elfride Swancourt, has this striking
characteristic: “These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance —
blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and
woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady
blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather
I enjoy the words — and no image comes. What colour is autumn
distance? How is it different from sky blue? And the fear strikes that
I am unusually obtuse. There is a surviving will and testament of Sir
Thomas Phillips in 1551 that bequeaths “unto my cousin my orange-
coloured cow”. You have to assume that he meant something like a
could just see colours more distinctly than I can. In The Times’s new
offices are chairs and sofas in striking hues that I struggle to name. I
uttered the word “cerise” last week for probably the first time in my
life but I’m just guessing.
If you look at a paint catalogue, you find scores of shades going under
implausible labels like “apricot crush” or “mint macaroon”. Do they
exist or is it all a convoluted joke?
A judge at Cardiff crown court last week was incensed at a lawyer’s
eccentric standards of dress. I imagine that judicial dress is a matter
of convention that changes only incrementally but sometimes more
daringly. William Rehnquist, America’s chief justice till his death in
2005, turned up to the Supreme Court with four rows of gold braid
sewn on to his black robe. In wry self-mockery, his model was the
Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, who sings: “The
law is the true embodiment/ Of everything that’s excellent/ It has no
kind of fault or flaw/ And I, my Lords, embody the law.” I hope one
day for a chief justice who is a fan of Priscilla, Queen of the
Desert and will revolutionise legal attire accordingly.
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