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Standard bearer

THE OXFORD SCHOOL A-Z OF ENGLISH. By John Ayto Oxford University Press Pounds 5.99. - 0 19 910308 9.

This very readable guide to common English usage is intended for students at key stage 3 and beyond. John Ayto sets out to define and describe what is considered to be standard English in 1995. As such he is likely to offend those who regard the English language as immutable and write indignantly to criticise the pronunciation and grammar of Radio 4 presenters.

According to Ayto, leading protagonists do indeed exist, a person can be dilapidated and the media can take either a singular or a plural verb. This common sense approach, based on the premise that language is dynamic and everchanging, includes entries as "standard" once they have passed into general, even if not universal, usage. It may be hard for some to accept, but words and usage which infuriate today often become the standard English of the future. Who now would question the use of the word tourism? Yet, in a letter quoted here to the Radio Times in 1949, it is described as "a misbegotten, ill-conceived monstrosity of a word". That does not mean that "anything goes". Take part of the entry for was and were: "It's quite common, especially in speech, to use was instead of were in sentences like this: if it wasn't so dark, I could see your face. But this is not completely accepted as part of standard English, and in written work it's best to use were."

As its title suggests, The Oxford School A-Z of English is organised alphabetically and answers questions on grammar, spelling, misused and confused words, pronunciation and punctuation. As such it is easy to find one's way around and the author has succeeded in writing with admirable simplicity and clarity.

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