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In Defence of English Style: A Language Guide for the Age of 24/7 Journalese

By R J Fallon

A language expert presents a clear, pragmatic, and infallible definition of good English style then applies it like a scalpel as he dissects the worst linguistic features of popular journalism.

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Where is the difference between good English and bad? When we put together a sentence, what is it that makes one set of words more eligible than another?

These are interesting times for anybody who worries about such questions. Traditionalists continue to maintain that good writing or speaking is a matter of remembering and obeying various rigid and timeless rules. Progressives insist that every rule of diction or grammar is an arbitrary and backward imposition and that all forms of English are equally good. It’s not surprising that some people get confused. But false philosophies are not the only problem facing ordinary conscientious English-users. They are also beset by untrustworthy role models. And there are few exemplars worse than the perpetrators of 24/7 broadcast journalese. Perhaps, indeed, the most toxic of all influences on the nation’s language is the BBC News Channel, if only because the corporation is still widely seen as a bastion of ‘proper’ English.

 ‘If the BBC does it,’ you might think, ‘it must be OK.’ Not so, as R. J. Fallon demonstrates in detail. But the basis of the critique is not the traditionalists’ question-begging distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ English. Instead, going back to the very first principles of word choice and sentence construction, the author establishes clear, simple, and rational criteria of good English style – Are these words meaningful? Are they appropriate? – and shows how a lot of BBC language falls short. Through all this he equips you with concepts and ways of thinking that can be applied to any linguistic dilemma you might encounter, whether professionally or socially.

If this volume also makes you less tolerant of nonsense, at the Beeb or anywhere else, that may not be such a bad thing for the culture of the nation. In Defence of English Style is built on the Orwellian proposition that a civilized society must be one whose public language passes the test of rationality, and in that sense the critique of ‘BBC English’ has implications well beyond linguistics. This is especially true of the author’s essay-length protests against the confusion of ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ – or vice versa – and against the continuing verbal mystification of mental illness. But those polemical pieces are just the plainest manifestations of an insight that illuminates the book as a whole, which reveals again and again that linguistic issues are fundamentally inseparable from social ones.

Will this book interest you?

In Defence of English Style is a book for all thoughtful users of the language and assumes no prior linguistic expertise. In fact it may be of particular interest to the linguistically bewildered, since it proceeds by steps from general truths about language and style to particular truths about word choice and sentence construction. The author’s method is part of the message: your stylistic dilemmas will more or less resolve themselves if you remember the basic principles. And if you don’t get misled by what you hear on the BBC News Channel.

About the author

R. J. Fallon has BA and PhD degrees from the University of Leicester, where he also taught English in the 1980s. He spent twenty-five years in the world of publishing, working on everything from magazines and journals to academic monographs and scholarly editions of classic literature (including the Arden Shakespeare, for which he wrote the publisher’s copy-editing guidelines). He is a former member of the National Union of Journalists and of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (now known as the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading). In Defence of English Style is not his public debut as a writer, but it is his first book on the subject of language. He lives in northern England with an angel and a cat.

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