On Heffer’s Strictly English

Please note: this image is not meant to be an advertisement for the book!

For the book I’m writing on the usage guide as a genre I’m reading several usage guides. Now it is Simon Heffer’s turn. Strictly English, first published in 2010, I find, is a disturbing book (and I have only got through the prologue and the first chapter yet). Not because he admits in the very first sentence that the book was not his own idea but that of the publisher: this confirms an important point I will be making in my book. But because he has no idea about grammar.

How can anyone claim that it is easy for native speakers of English to learn their mother tongue because it doesn’t have gender (p. 4)? Contrary to what Heffer seems to think, not all progressives are of course gerunds (p. 14). And is the passive voice really “part of the language of evasion” (p. 12)? Whom, he writes, is “an accusative that requires preservation” (p. 18), so I can’t wait to see what more he has to say on “Bad grammar” (the title of Chapter 4).

If his publisher, Nigel Wilcockson of Random House, really suggested to Heffer that he should write this book, why didn’t they ask a linguist to check the basic facts of what Heffer decided to write about? As I wrote elsewhere on this blog, there are plenty of us around, and we would love to help turning usage guides into better books. Linguists and publishers unite!

(David Crystal and Geoffrey Pullum reviewed the books: a pdf of Pullum’s review is available through Language Log; Crystal’s review can be found here.)

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2 Responses to On Heffer’s Strictly English

  1. Doreen Dugelay says:

    What’s with the gerund after “help” in this post, though?

  2. Robin Straaijer says:

    Linguists seem to agree. Geoff Pullum wrote a review of Strictly English on Linguist List in 2010. With his customary mildness and nuance for these kinds of books, he says that “for true bone-headed blundering stupidity about grammar it actually gives The Elements of Style a run for its money”. If you know Geoff’s position on Strunk & White, you know what time it is! (if you don’t, read this)

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