10 grammar books to read before you die of boredom
The Guardian March 14, 2014
A seasonal selection of new (and not so new) books about language that are anything but dull
The Beatles: pleasing proponents of the polyptoton. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty
Books about English fall into various categories, mostly offputting ones: the academic, rarely of much interest, and often incomprehensible, to the general reader; the lament for a (mythical) golden age "when everyone knew how to use grammar"; the prescriptions of Dr Grammar (do this, or you are clearly illiterate). Here are some that avoid these traps.
Best of the new
Taking as its premise that what you say matters less than how you say it, Mark Forsyth's Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase (Icon Books) takes us on an informative but highly entertaining journey through the figures of rhetoric, demonstrating the tricks used by writers as diverse as John Milton and Katy Perry to produce memorable phrases.
As in his previous books, The Etymologicon (which dealt with the connections between words) and The Horologicon (which covered obsolete words), the author employs his ingenious trademark of ending one section with a word that starts the next, which I think is a form of anadiplosis. It means you are likely to start off reading a couple of chapters, and end up reading the whole book in one go.
Some of the rhetorical devices he discusses are well known, such as alliteration (Pride and Prejudice, Power to the People), but most will be unfamiliar terms. Forsyth's examples bring them immediately to life: for example polyptoton, where you repeat a word in a different sense (Please Please Me, "but me no buts").
t's packed with obscure but fascinating facts. On page 24 we learn that "to be bonny and buxom, in bed and at board, till death us do part" was part of the medieval marriage service; on page 25, that the first world war song "Bless 'em all, bless 'em all, the long and the short and the tall" originally went "Fuck 'em all".
Like Doug Piranha in the old Monty Python sketch - "he knew all the tricks: dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire" - Mark Forsyth wears his considerable knowledge lightly. He also writes beautifully. And I am not just saying that because he said something nice about my own book. Which brings me to ...
Best of the rest of the new
The title of Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr (OUP), is not just to grab the attention: it encapsulates her theme, which is that swearing falls into two categories: the holy ("zounds", from "God's wounds", or my dad's favourite, "blood and thunderbolts"), and the shitty (any taboo bodily function, whether sexual or scatological). In an implicit endorsement of the Guardian's approach to bad language, Mohr concludes that swearing is basically a good thing.
Within five minutes of his appearance on Radio 4's Midweek to publicise his English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don't Know You Know (John Murray), Harry Ritchie had somehow been tricked into answering a silly question about gerunds. As the nation turned off, I stayed tuned, and I'm glad I did, as this book is a refreshing change from the didactic and pedantic, recognising that we all use grammar and that non-standard forms are as valid as Standard English. Examples quoted range "from Ali G to John Betjeman, Margaret Thatcher to Match of the Day", as is essential with books of this type (I speak from experience, only in my case it is "from Shakespeare to The Simpsons, from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Yoda").
Two Guardian journalists joined this year's rush to share their thoughts about language in a wise and witty way - or so we claim. But if you haven't bought Steven Poole's Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon (Sceptre) or my For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection (Guardian Faber) by now, you probably aren't going to. So here are three of my favourite golden oldies, all still in print and given a recent facelift.
Best of the old
The 19th-century American journalist Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, is an A-Z of ironic observations on language, politics, religions and other targets, for example "Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated." Perfect for tweeting, and now available in various formats - including a free ebook.
First Aid in English (Hodder), by Angus Maciver, a Scottish teacher, was first published in 1938. We loved it at my primary school and it's still going strong, newly available in a reassuringly not-very-colourful "colour edition". It explains the basics very clearly. If you took the 11-plus, or wonder what it was like, this is for you; if you are eager to learn more about Chomsky's paradigm, it isn't.
If you haven't read The King's English, by Kingsley Amis, originally published posthumously in 1997, you might be surprised by its relatively liberal approach to usage. Superbly written and very funny, it is now a Penguin Classic, suggesting that if Amis had only kept at it, he might have attained the literary stature of a Morrissey.
And for next year
NM Gwynne's Gwynne's Grammar, a kind of First Aid in English for grownups who miss the 1950s (or possibly 1850s), was a huge success this year. In April, Gwynne's Latin (Ebury Press) is due. Gwynne's approach - that of a stern, but kindly, headmaster - should be well-suited to the subject, although he is unlikely to tell us the Latin for "bell-end" (luckily, it's in Holy Shit).
I've had a sneak preview of the fourth edition of Tony Thorne's Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (A&C Black), due in February, so I can tell you that "the sesh was gout - a sausage-fest of keeners and Brendans" is student slang for "that seminar was awful - an all-male gathering of swots and unattractive losers". Many of the entries are far too rude to repeat, even in the Guardian, but let's just say I will never look at an aardvark in quite the same way again.