Happy birthday, Janet Whitcut!

Though none of us in the Bridging the Unbridgeable project has ever met Janet Whitcut, her work is nevertheless very important to us. Janet is the author, together with Sidney Greenbaum, of The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988). Jointly, they revised Sir Ernest Gowers’s Complete Plain Words, which was published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1986; a third edition came out the year after that (Penguin). The Longman Guide is one of the 77 usage guides in our HUGE database of usage guides and usage problems, and Janet is one of the 290 people listed in the database.

A few years ago, one of my MA students, Chloe White, decided to write her final paper for the course Testing Prescriptivism on the Longman Guide to English Usage. She tried to find out who Janet Whitcut is (or was); unfortunately though, Janet, unlike Sidney Greenbaum, has no entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography, nor could Chloe find any information about her on the Internet.

So we launched a search for Janet on our project blog, and this brought us into contact with a former colleague and friend of hers, Robert Ilson, as well as with a number of her friends, who told me that she will be turning 90 this month, on 19 January! A major birthday in other words, and to celebrate this, we asked some of her old friends and colleagues and even one new one to write something about her.

This is what Andrew Delahunty wrote:

I was certainly aware of her as one of the freelance lexicographers regularly used by Longman when I worked there in the late 80s/early 90s, and I’m a fan of the Longman Guide to English Usage, which she co-wrote with Sidney Greenbaum. There is one point I’d like to make here: the year after the Oxford Guide to English Usage was published, OUP brought out an abridged version called the Little Oxford Guide to English Usage (1994), and it was Janet who did the abridging. I always think cutting down a text, something I have done many times over the years, is an underappreciated skill, and in my view Janet’s judicious and elegant editing down of the OGEU text may actually have produced a better book that its parent.

Here is Robert Ilson, praising her work as follows:

Janet Whitcut cares about language, knows about language, and writes well.  That combination of attributes is rarer than it ought to be.  Many people who dish out diatribes against words, senses, and constructions they dislike are surprisingly uninterested in how language works and develops over time: they prefer condemning to understanding.  Janet’s views are supported by evidence and analogy.  Moreover, the proof of the pudding is in its presentation. Janet practises what she preaches by presenting her views in a style of incomparable elegance and clarity, which itself reinforces her claim to speak on matters of English usage with authority.

We also found Adrian Stenton, who wrote:

Dear Janet, I hope this finds you well and enjoying a magnificent birthday! Ingrid asked me to put together a little note, and so I immediately thought of the many fruitful hours we spent at Longman, discussing the finer points of lexicography and grammar. In particular, I think you can take credit for changing the somewhat arcane, if accurate, LDOCE-1 [D1;V4b] for ‘put up to’ to the rather more transparent ‘put sb up to sth’, and come up with a procedure for categorising phrasal verbs in the first place! Happy days, and much missed!

Finally, we asked Rebecca Gowers, the great-granddaughter of Sir Ernest, to write something about her experiences of revising Plain Words, which came out in 2014. Jane, of course, had been her predecessor in this. Here is what she wrote:

Though I have never met Janet Whitcut, that is not quite how it feels, because we have a rarified bond, and form a club of two. Put another way, can there be anyone else alive who has worried about Plain Words as much as, separately, we have?

Janet Whitcut was one of a pair of editors to work on the third edition of Ernest Gowers’s style guide in 1986, and I did my best to create the fourth in 2014. When rolling my sleeves up for this job, I naturally looked to see how she and Sidney Greenbaum had gone about the same task the last time round.

One aspect of the original book that desperately needed updating for the twenty-first century was, I thought, the use of the all-embracing masculine pronoun, about which my great-grandfather had expressed qualms as far back as the 1960s: in the third edition this problem had been addressed erratically, but it had by no means gone unnoticed. I found it impossible not to imagine that it had been a doughty Janet Whitcut who had sprinkled or she across the various sections of the book that had fallen under her care.

The third edition of Plain Words revised the second, as one might expect; but for the fourth I was charged with directly revising the first, in part to restore the original book’s predominantly discursive feel. Fair enough, I hope, but there is no question that in going about things this way I was forced, here and there, to reinvent the wheel. As I marshalled my thoughts, I was to discover odd places where one of the 1986 editors had amended an original Gowers sentence exactly as I myself was contemplating doing. It was a funny form of friendship, enacted in silence and looped across decades, but when I stumbled over one of these points of coincidence, I would think, “Ah ha!”, and mentally thank my fellow toiler for a moment of solidarity in what we must all have found a daunting as well as an exhilarating task.

So, to end this short piece, Janet, on behalf of all the members of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project as well: HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you!

(And, readers of this blog, if you wish to join us in our good wishes to Janet, feel free to do so by leaving a comment. Her friends will pass them on to her when they see her.)


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3 Responses to Happy birthday, Janet Whitcut!

  1. Cath Bromwich says:

    Thank you Ingrid for this. I have just returned from Janet’s 90th Birthday party where I told her about this. She enjoyed her fireworks. I will let you know what her propper responce is once she has had an opertunity to read it printed out onto nice paper! Many thanks again Ingrid, Cath (Janet’s niece)

  2. Sheila Dallas says:

    I don’t know if this is still open, but a memory of Janet has just popped up in my mind. No-one has mentioned Longman Dictionary of the English Language (LDEL) published 1984. I was walking down the corridor after a lunchtime shop one day carrying the wool for a jumper and waistcoat with the intention of knitting it. It had a picture on the front of a young woman wearing the final garment. Janet was walking towards me, looked at the picture on the bag, and said in her beautifully clear English ‘How very you!’ I knitted the jumper (not very well), and kept it. A ‘re-furb’ (how Janet would have hated that!) has just led me to fold it up and place it in the wardrobe and for some reason I have remembered her comment. I wondered whether there was any information about her and I found these. We both worked in the same Longman department (Dictionary and Reference Book Department [DRBD]) as can be seen from the Acknowledgements in LDEL). Have you tried contacting John Ayto? With best wishes. Sheila Dallas

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