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John Humphrys

LOST FOR WORDS

The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The use and abuse of English is one of the main subjects that prompts listeners write to the BBC, so as a broadcaster John Humphrys hears a lot about the subject and here he offers his reflections on it. But the book isn't confined to purely linguistic matters; Humphrys spends much of his time interviewing politicians and he has a good deal to say about the ways in which they manipulate language for their own ends.

Reading this book I was reminded of F.L. Lucas's Style, written fifty years ago but still, to my mind, one of the best guides to good writing that exist. For Humphrys, style means saying things clearly; this is Lucas's message too. Both writers have a fondness for short sentences, though Humphrys takes it further than Lucas—a change in fashion is no doubt partly responsible for this. And both want to get away from slavish dependence on rules put forward by pedants.

Not that Humphrys believes that anything goes. He rightly pours scorn on the primary-school teacher who wrote at the bottom of an eight-year-old's essay: "You could of written it alot neater." Three howlers in one short sentence—quite an achievement. If this is what the teachers produce, what wonder if university undergraduates can't write English? Incidentally, it's worth noting that Humphry's ability to write good clear English has been acquired without the "advantage" of a university education.

There is a lot about jargon and cliches, as there should be. "Business-speak" is one of the worst offenders. I liked the game Humphrys suggests for people who have to attend boring business meetings: play a sort of Bingo by seeing how long it takes you to collect a particular group of standard phrases, such as Proactive, Win-Win. Think Outside The Box. Phrases of this kind are a substitute for thought. Politicians tend to misuse language rather differently -- to conceal their meaning or to manipulate their listeners. Humphrys has plenty to say about this.

I have a few quibbles, of course. I'm not sure that "but" is always preferable to "however" and Humphrys nearly always uses a dash where I would have expected a semicolon, but perhaps I'm old-fashioned; I have to admit to a fondness for the semicolon, which may be on the way out. And is "because" always better than "since"? Humphrys does mention the prevalent neglect of the difference between "may" and "might" but I'd have given it more prominence myself. Still, these are details and we should be grateful to Humphrys for having written the book. But an index would have been useful.

16 November 2007


%T Lost for Words
%S The mangling and manipulating of the English Language
%A Humphrys, John
%I Hodder
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 978-0-340-83648-0
%P xiii + 334 pp
%K literature


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