Backing basics

1st March 1996 at 00:00

John Murray Pounds 4.99 each Age range 14 plus

Grammar, punctuation, spelling: Dennis Hamley assesses a set of books on the cornerstones of written English. Intended as much - if not more - for the private student as the school, these books, three by a veteran of language publications, the fourth by a head of English and examiner at GCSE, A-level and degree levels, do exactly what the titles promise, effectively and efficiently.

In Basic Grammar, the stance is explicit from the start: grammar is the tool of clarity and communication, a key to the unlocking of opportunity: standard English is not virtuous for itself but for what its currency is. The conventional account of grammar proceeds with clear description and definition, well-conceived and presented exercises, good self-assessments and checklists. Answers are provided. This is a worthwhile book to have around - not only for GCSE students but A-level students in any subject who may fall foul of examiners' strictures about language accuracy.

Schiach's other titles follow a similar pattern, The publishers claim - convincingly, I think - that Basic Punctuation is a mass-market paperback and stress its uses to the private student who is "improving communications skills for qualificationemployment purposes". In other words, it is so often punctuation which lets down the letter of application. I have seen many guides to punctuation; this one, which reassuringly combines comprehensiveness with approachability, compares well with the others. The tone is set by the first question to the reader: "What will this book do for me?" Schiach clearly states his intentions, and delivers. Once again, the book's basic structure is clear: a chapter per punctuation feature. Definitions are unambiguous: examples are exact, humorous and vivid. Areas sometimes difficult to teach and learn - apostrophes, colons and semi-colons - are treated with cold transparency: excellent pieces of presentation. The prevailing philosophy about punctuation is that it is not merely a tool but something of interest in its own right: the analogy of time signatures and expression marks to bring to performance a musical score is never far away.

Michael Temple's Basic Spelling follows the same structure and shares a philosophy. A rather differently organised introduction from those of Schiach's books makes an important point about spelling which must inform all its teaching: those unsure of spelling "feel they have to choose simpler or more awkward expressions than they would like, or else they develop 'hang-ups' about writing generally". True. So many times I have heard adults say, "Don't laugh at my spelling"; hardly ever, "Please excuse my grammarpunctuationwritten English". Spelling is no more important than the others but it certainly carries the greatest load of sensitivity.

Once again we have a user-friendly book. All the standard strategies are brought together effectively in the introduction - looksaycoverwritecheck, memory tips, listing, dictionary use, word families, rules for word formation, drafting and proof reading. They are presented in a series of topic chapters with the attractive clarity of the rest of the series. Written English brings all the others together, rounding off the series with a continuation of the philosophy informing it throughout. Accurate, disciplined and written with all the expertise of the first-rate teacher, this series is to be recommended.

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