For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection by David Marsh

A grammar guide that knows when to break the rules

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The people who choose to write guides to grammar and usage are often, mysteriously, those least qualified to do so. They mistake private hobbyhorses for general law, and break their own rules without noticing. To the sensitive reader, indeed, cataloguing such forlorn error is the only amusement to be had from recent stentorian compendia of wrongness such as Simon Heffer’s Strictly English. Meanwhile Nevile Gwynne, author of the bestselling Gwynne’s Grammar, proved himself weirdly incapable last year of parsing the phrase “too much too young” when it appeared in an open letter by some academics. Gwynne declared it “simply not English”. Not only is it the title of a well-known 1979 song by the Specials, but the phrase also appears much earlier – in, for instance, Jack London’s John Barleycorn of 1913. “I knew too much too young,” the narrator says. No doubt Gwynne thinks London couldn’t write English either.

David Marsh, as production editor of this newspaper and its style guru (at least in the sense of prose style; I do not claim to be qualified to comment on menswear), is better placed than most to offer a practical guide to writing, and he is not shy of taking witty sideswipes at the competition, including Gwynne, Heffer and Lynne Truss. He begins by explaining the mechanics of syntax through analysis of pop-song lyrics from the Beatles to De La Soul. This at first looks ingratiatingly groovy-uncle-ish, but it is at least partially rescued by his playful humour. (“Red Hot Chili Peppers, unlike the Police, favour the Middle English spelling of ‘magik’.”)

With admirable clarity, Marsh goes on to explain the gerund and subjunctive, the difference between comparing to and comparing with, and the correct use of “whom”, avoidance of which has given this book its deliberately teeth-grating title. Cleverly, Marsh here inverts the usual reasons for understanding conventions. You need to know the rule for “whom” not because you should use “whom” whenever appropriate (because it will sometimes sound pompous), but because you need absolutely to avoid using “whom” when it should actually be “who”, since that will sound both pompous and stupid.

Despite the deceptive subtitle, much of the rest of the book is not about grammar at all: it dissolves into an entertaining compendium of usage notes and mini-essays. (Lists of common mistakes provide filler, as apparently is inevitable in this kind of book.) Marsh touches on rhetorical devices such as antanaclasis (teaching us, splendidly, how to parse the sentence, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”), and “fronting or topicalisation, a device of which Milton, like Yoda, was fond”. (Marsh has the good taste not to modernise the spelling of Milton or other writers.) There are divertingly knockabout sections on jargon in politics, on the railways, in the NHS, among estate agents and, of course, in newspapers. (“Very few people in real life,” Marsh observes, “talk about jobs being ‘axed’ or given a ‘massive boost’ … “)

Most satisfying is an angry chapter on so-called “political correctness”, which demolishes the pretensions of those who think they have a God-given right to abuse those less fortunate than themselves. What is decried as “politically correct” language by people such as Rod Liddle, Marsh points out unimprovably, “mainly boils down to consideration for others. Is this such a terrible burden?” Only for those, one might suspect, who trade in self-congratulatory nastiness.

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