Published at 5: 29PM, August 29 2014

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Oliver Kamm

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


Kamm, Oliver


Oliver Kamm


This week"s columns


Tuesday, September 02, 2014 7:45:20 AM

The Pedant: enjoy a conversation to

 escape the curse of knowledge

Published at 12:01AM, September 2 2014


 thing when you see it: people who know their subject yet are unable

 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

Oliver Kamm

‘I make charms and talismans to dispel negativity and work with

 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

 assault her.

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


Colour blind

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

 than at.”

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

 dull rust colour rather than the shade of a clownfish, but perhaps he

 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 law unto himself

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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