Non-Fiction Reviews


The Oxford Guide to Plain English

(2013) Martin Cutts, Oxford University Press, 7.99, pbk, xxx + 280pp, ISBN 978-0-199-66917-2

 

If writing ever forms a meaningful (even if tiny but important) part of your work then consider this book invaluable. It is not just for authors or journalists but anyone who has to write be it producing reports at work, penning articles for community newsletter (even fanzines) or even blogging. The purpose of writing is, after all, to communicate and that in turn means engaging with whoever it is one is trying to reach. Personally, despite having written for decades, I fully admit to struggling with spelling and the finer points of grammar (I wonder how many would own up to this?), and so on the professional front I am indebted to copy editors and proof readers. However, more often that not I do not have such professional back-up; including when I pen reviews for this site. (I do feel for some of you who may be my long-standing regulars and who suffer.) Yet I do try to make my prose as accessible as possible. Indeed one of the referees for one of my an academic book proposals with a major science publisher said that my style was 'too easy a read for such a reputable academic publisher' and so should be 'rejected'! Actually, that comment made the publisher all the more keen to take on my work and subsequent book reviews for the most part have endorsed this view with just one alone saying that my style was 'bland'. (You can't win them all.)

Because my work has for decades involved reading research science and research science reviews, one thing that really gets my goat is the overly convoluted and pompous academic style. Fortunately, more often than not, I have found that those employing such supposedly self-aggrandising styles actually have little of substance to say. Over the years I have found this to be so true that when I come across such instances I am tempted to put that work down and turn to whatever is next. Alas I have to force myself to wade through such verbiage on the off chance that this is one of those very rare occasions that some discerning science might be lurking therein.

So what has all this to do with The Oxford Guide to Plain English? Well, let me just say that over the years I have learned a few lessons but appreciate that I still have a way to go. So when I picked up The Oxford Guide I immediately recognised sound advice plus other valuable tips: this is a very useful book.

The author is ideal for this book as he is a confirmed enthusiast for plain English having founded the Plain English Campaign (PEC) in 1979. (Indeed as it happened back in 1987 one of the books I played a very small part in promoting was a layman's guide to AIDS and this won a Plain English Award: so I am well aware of this organisation and have kept an occasional eye on the PEC ever since.)

The guide itself begins with a 30-page introduction explaining why plain English is needed and why often there is deliberate obfuscation. Martin Cutts points out that language mauling has been going on for years. Back in 1525 William Tyndale translated the Bible from Latin into English using plain language that ordinary folk could easily understand (rather than the ornate, high-level style associated with the ruling elite). He was executed for his trouble.

Moving on, the guide has chapters on: short sentences and clear paragraphs; plain words; vigorous verbs and untying noun strings; good punctuation; planning; low-literacy plain English; and proof reading. There is even a section on good e-mail practice: I do wish everyone would read this.

The book's many points are amply illustrated with real-life examples of what happens when writers do the opposite: bad writing not only alienates readers but can impart a very different meaning to that that was intended.

There is so much to this book that I would be surprised if even seasoned writers did not find something new. For example, I was not aware that the symbol I had been using for speech inverted commas was incorrect: I had been using (and confess I still do) use the symbol for inches. I mention this because this was a rare example in the book where the compiler might have missed one reason why this happens. He (rightly) points to curly double quotes not being easy to find on many keyboards and suggests setting one's word processor defaults to, what are often called, 'smart quotes'. One reason he does not mention why some do not do this is that if you are computer coding then many languages (including HTML commands) do not recognise smart quotes and having your PC set up to automatically create them can be a real pain for regular HTML coders. But this was the only thing that I found missing. All the other advice was sound and there were things I learnt: such as the finer points of representing speech in both British and US styles including a commonly used, unofficial crossover.

At less than a tenner this is the best investment that anyone who writes at least semi-regularly will need. It should be compulsory for school sixth formers (the two pre-college/university years). Having got it they might be advised to re-read it every six months for the next five years to ensure that its messages really sink in, and then they will be set up for life.

Get this book.

Jonathan Cowie


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