Stylish way can't be written off

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Godfrey Howard is a man with a mission. He would like the nation's children to be able to write not just good English but English with some style and flair by the time they leave school.

It is an ambition which he shares with many of the politicians who currently exhort teachers to do better. But the route by which he proposes that schools should meet this objective may stray a little from the path of political orthodoxy.

Godfrey Howard is a linguist who studied English at Oxford under greats such as C T Onions, the last surviving editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. He has made a career of research into the use of language and is a regular writer and broadcaster on the subject. His current hope, with the publication today of the Good English Handbook, is that he can move on from advising professional writers, as he has done in previous books, to making good, modern English, accessible to everyone.

Mr Howard is a progressive as far as language is concerned. He is not impressed by shrill criticism of standards of English which appear to him to be trying to freeze a living language in a form people remember from 20,30 or even 50 years ago. As a writer himself, he reckons that there is a proper place for traditional grammar, but equally a place for all the various influences, from home and abroad, which make the language a living thing.

"English is a wonderful language," he says. "But it is a language which is enormously flexible and which changes very fast. There is no single authority." And with that he parts company with the grammarians who prescribe, to his amusement, "the correct use of the comma." He has debated the comma for hours with the novelist A S Byatt, he says, without coming to any definitive answer.

He is equally scathing about French attempts, through the Academie Francais, to freeze out English and American words. "It is actually against the law there to use English words when there is a French equivalent. But people go on doing "le shopping" for "le weekend". Language is made by people not by grammarians." One of the strengths of English, he argues, is that it has absorbed so many diverse additions.

His publishers claim that his new book will make the English language "sexy". It is probably not a word he would have chosen, but he does believe that the evolution of English is exciting and goes on at a furious pace. For that reason people need a guide.

"I am not aiming to replace Fowler, for whom I have the greatest respect. But if you consult Fowler it is likely to take you half an hour to elucidate a point of linguistic difficulty.

"What I am trying to do in my handbook is provide a quick and easy-to-use reference work which can solve the problems which come up time after time when you are speaking, reading or writing. I'd like to think that teachers marking work would have it to hand. I suspect that many are marking as "unacceptable" words and phrases which are commonly used by good writers."

What sort of problems does he identify? He consulted a panel of some 100 writers and broadcasters while he was compiling the book, using them as a sounding board to arrive at what he would rather call "acceptable" than "correct" usage. Acceptability, he thinks, arrives by consensus and is constantly changing.

He untangles words which are frequently confused, such as: includeconsistcomprisecompose and flammablefla meproof inflammableinflammatory.

He confirms it is quite all right to start a sentence with "but" or "and".Many good writers, he says, use the latter when they want a sense of continuity.

On technicalities such as the double negative he is relaxed. They may be considered uneducated, he says, but there are occasions when they allow writers to provide a meaning which cannot be achieved any other way. The context is as important as the "rule".

He does not duck the difficult (for some) issue of political correctness, although this is an area where there are likely to be two consensuses - the traditional and the modern. But he can offer examples of how usage is changing in this respect, with "they" and "their" replacing "he" and "him" where women are included. The aim should be to avoid both offence and clumsiness: Bernard Shaw led the way on the latter point with "No one would ever marry if they thought it over".

But he is seldom prescriptive. There are rules, he says, but also in many cases options, both in spelling and construction. By secondary school, he thinks, these are the things teachers and students should be debating as they get to grips with the living language of the 21st century.

Good English Handbook is published today by Macmillan at #163;9.99

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