Book review: ‘For Who the Bell Tolls’ by David Marsh

For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection is a new book by David Marsh, production editor of the Guardian and editor of its style guide and language blog. The ironic title and tension with the subtitle will give you an indication of the contents and tone: serious yet light-hearted, personal but universal (sort of). It makes for an interesting balancing act, and to Marsh’s credit he pulls it off.

Structurally the book is a mixum-gatherum of analysis and advice covering grammar and language usage, both general and in the particular domains of journalism and the internet. Over 280-odd pages it covers a lot of ground, owing to Marsh’s plain, direct style and talent for concision. There is also pleasure in its easy humour: this is a funnier book than is usual for the field.

It’s practical, too, offering solid advice on the usual suspects such as split infinitives (“Following a ‘rule’ that confuses the reader is barmy”) and Oxford commas (“it’s as unwise to say always use an Oxford comma as it is to say never use one”) and on many lesser known questions of style. The text is accessible throughout, not depending on technical terminology but not ignoring it either:

You don’t need to know that ‘this is he’ is an example of the predicate nominative to be all too aware that someone who uses it to answer the phone is going to sound like a twerp.

There is a lucid chapter on punctuation, likely to be of real use to learners, refreshers, and anyone struggling with its trickier parts. Marsh has a nice line in musical references, newsroom revelations (“I’ve written headlines where we changed might to may not because of the meaning but because might didn’t fit”) and self-deprecation (“The Guardian publishes about 250,000 words on a typical weekday, many of them spelt correctly”).

Much of the advice is prescriptive, as you’d expect from the editor of a newspaper style guide, but it is largely free of superstition. Indeed, the book condemns many of the zombie rules Sentence first readers will be familiar with. Some reflections and recommendations are explicitly presented as personal preference:

I think his use of the subjunctive is pleasing

…sounds wrong to me because I was taught the following…

I was taught that bored of is wrong so it does grate slightly, but there seems no real justification for this…

I change try and to try to when I come across it in Guardian stories but it’s hard to establish the basis for this as a rule, rather than just a tradition.

This is a laudable strategy, and a smart one. Many writers seeking advice – especially those working to a tight deadline – want simple answers to complex problems. Provision of such answers is fine as far as it goes but can fuel the mistaken impression that legitimate variants are substandard. By acknowledging context and subjectivity, Marsh gives himself room to dispense advice while avoiding dogma.

Most of the time anyway. There are judgy moments, for instance a warning that use of comprised of will earn you “a look composed of, consisting of and comprising mingled pity and contempt” from “people who know about such things”. Well, linguists know about such things and will likely not mind at all. But prescriptivism is not so large; it resists semantic multitudes.

David Marsh - Guardian - For Who the Bell Tolls - book coverMarsh says it’s “not healthy to read only stuff you agree with”, and I agree. Still, I reject the claim that irregardless is “not a word at all”, regardless of how much you might wish it. Ongoing is not a word you need to “run a mile from”, though it was probably superfluous in some of the Guardian website’s tens of thousands of cases. We’re told fulsome is “not a fancy word for full”, but it can be. Not only without but also may be “very annoying” to Marsh, but the lack of parallelism is often no big deal, and the omission can even be beneficial.

Yet Marsh’s prescriptive approach accords far less with Heffer’s than with the more moderate Fowler’s. The latter, incidentally, bears some responsibility for the spread of one of my grammatical bêtes noires, the that/which rule, over which Marsh and I have disagreed before. He still prefers the simple rule, but his position appears to have relaxed: “although that is more common in restrictive clauses, you can use which”. Later examples support restrictive which and place responsibility rightly on the comma.

Informing his judgement is a deep and obvious love of language. There is no snobbishness or spittle here. He salutes rambunctious coinages like bouncebackability, and with Twitter’s help supplies translations into French (la rebondissabilité) and German (die Rücksprungsfähigkeit). He’s fully aware that language “will continue to evolve” – though I’d say change or transform here – “whether you embrace or resist the changes”. For instance:

I guarantee that if we use the phrase ‘the hoi polloi’ in the paper, someone will write in to say that the definite article is wrong, because the ancient Greek for ‘the common people’ was just hoi polloi. But we are not writing in ancient Greek, and the phrase just sounds silly without the ‘the’ in an English sentence.

Love of language often goes hand in hand with disapproval of its cynical and lazy misuse, and the “Attack of the Jargonauts” chapter is an enjoyable diatribe against political euphemism, corporate gibberish, and the brand of bafflingly obscure public language that Ernest Gowers railed against decades ago. In a spirited defence of political correctness, Marsh describes sensitive language as “a force for good in recent decades”, and delivers a thoughtful treatment of the difficulties with, and alternatives to, sexist, racist, ageist and ableist language.

Here and there are boxes with random problems (cliché abuse, misuse of ironic) given marks out of ten for irritation and frequency, but the idea seems half-hearted and arbitrary, and adds nothing substantial that couldn’t have been integrated into the text. An A–Z of confusables could have done with more mnemonics, since countless guides present similar material but people still mix them up. But it’s a hefty collection that draws on the extensive Guardian style guide, so it provides good fuel for discussion.

The book’s humour and freshness show in its apt use of pop culture to shine a light on grammar. The title of Kirsty MacColl’s song ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, for example, is used to conclude a crash course in syntax. If you’re unsure of this area, the book offers a painless introduction; if you know it well, you can skip ahead – but then you’ll miss some of the fun:

This song title is a sentence that contains four noun phrases (a guy, the chip shop, he, Elvis), four verb phrases ([there]’s, works, swears, [he]’s), and a prepositional phrase (down the chip shop) that in turn contains one of the noun phrases (the chip shop), which in turn contains the adjectival phrase (chip). All this and an example of something called ‘existential there’ (There’s). Oh, and there are two relative clauses (works down the chip shop, swears he’s Elvis). Plus a couple of determiners. And possibly some parts that I’ve missed. I mention all this just to illustrate that the more you get into phrase-structure grammar, the more fun you can have.

And for all its nods to tradition, the book is wholly modern, featuring haiku tweets (including one of mine), and also tweeted exchanges with @guardianstyle as footnotes on each page, by turns playful (“Funner or more fun?” “Funner is more fun, but more fun is correct”), helpful (“…starting sentences with ‘however’?” “However you look at it, it’s fine. However, note comma”), amusing (“HOW can you justify ‘syllabuses’ not ‘syllabi’?” “Well it’s not Latin, for a start”), and beyond the call of duty (“Start up: verb; startup: noun; star tup: top-performing ram”).

Far from sounding dad-on-the-dancefloor about this stuff, Marsh is evidently at home with it (also note that use of sentence-initial plus, marking his laidback style). The internet positively influences his attitude to language, as does the work of linguists like David Crystal and Steven Pinker. Straddling such different registers as Twitter wordplay and broadsheet journalism gives him insight into language’s essential mutability and raggedness-around-the-edges that allows it to be stretched and tugged in innovative ways.

As for the quest in the title, he admits it is “impossible to say what perfection, or even consistency, would look like”. But language is eminently perfectible, and Marsh’s book – at once an informal guide to usage and a celebration of its subtleties – shows why it matters that we keep trying (and have fun while we’re at it).

For Who the Bell Tolls blends respect for sound traditions with an embrace of new linguistic possibilities, and would make a welcome addition to any amateur or professional word-wrangler’s shelf. You can read an edited extract here or order it from the Guardian bookshop, the Book Depository or your preferred bookstore.


Disclosure: Faber & Faber kindly sent me a copy for review. I should also note that Sentence first and my Twitter page appear in Marsh’s selection of “Top 20” resources on language that concludes his book (though by describing my posts as “short” he is politely ignoring several monsters in the archives).

Finally, a note on Muphry’s Law, which is mentioned in the introduction. The obligatory slip appears in chapter 2: “no less an authority that Robert Burchfield pointed out…”. If it’s any consolation, that for than is an extremely stealthy typo. Blame Titivillus.

5 Responses to Book review: ‘For Who the Bell Tolls’ by David Marsh

  1. Roger says:

    Phrases like ” . . . sound traditions . . .” and “. . .word-wrangler’s shelf” would seem to exclude e-books. So much the better. I can’t imagine a stack of dog-eared Kindles.

    • Stan says:

      Roger: I suppose they do, but that wasn’t my intention, just reviewer’s bias. The book is available for Kindle, but I don’t own one.

  2. […] Book review: ‘For Who the Bell Tolls’ by David Marsh […]

  3. […] Stan Carey covered the important ground in his book review posted on his blog Sentence First […]

  4. […] Stan Carey cov­ered the impor­tant ground in his book review posted on his blog Sen­tence First […]

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