29 Oct 2013

It's Halloween, show off your word nerdery!

As a confessing word nerd who as a rule never dates anybody whose spelling is worse than mine and who's got a bit of subbing experience in two languages - one of which knows the full extent of both the terms 'grammar' and 'Nazi' -, I wince whenever I read this title, not to speak of the atrocity of typing it. Admittedly, this might also have something to do with the literariness of the quote that touches on another of my private passions. Originally from one of the Meditations by John Donne, but usually better known as the title of Hemingway's Spanish Civil War novel of 1940 (or the Metallica song), it could very well be that I'm doubly challenged in this respect.

A book that takes as its aim to set grammar right and to clean up with a couple of obsolete or indeed obscure 'rules' of writing will nowadays inevitably be called a "grammar nazis' Mein Kampf", and some tweets and readers' reactions appear to confirm this. Yet, Marsh's book is in fact anything but: grounded in current linguistic theories of the evolution of grammar and the philosophy of language, Marsh puts reason before rule. As production editor of the Guardian, who is also the face behind the @guardianstyle twitter feed, he knows about the importance of clear and concise writing, as well as a sensible approach to language in general. He is strongly in favour of the descriptive side of grammarians, who analyse language in the form we all use it - not as certain purists would have us to. So, real grammar nazis will have to look elsewhere to get off on strict prescriptive dos and don'ts.

Thank. Dog.

For Who the Bell Tolls (ouch!) starts with a very short introduction and explanation of the most important grammatical terms for the non-linguist, such as noun, adjective, preposition, etc. If this already sets off your didactical alarm bells, rest assured: Marsh does this with the help of a "grammar playlist", i.e. song titles that mainly consist of the word group he'd like to talk about in this instance. This playlist combines pretty much anything from The Beatles to Kylie Minogue (I never thought I'd put those two together in a sentence, but here we go), and works astonishingly well to remain a welcome lightness. And what is more, Marsh generally keeps the terminology to a minimum throughout the book.

He then takes out his broom and gets rid of a couple of obsolete or obscure writing rules, such as the various 'thou shalt nots' on splitting infitivies, beginning sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions. His underlying thesis here is, 'if people speak like this, and they understand each other without difficulties, that's totally fine - relax!'. The following chapters deal with the most common sources for mistakes or - what is worse - misunderstandings: the definitiveness of relative clauses, where to put apostrophes and other punctuation marks. The tone is slightly less entertaing in these chapters, mainly because they are more list-like and probably meant to serve as a manual, which contrasts a lot with the beginning chapters and those towards the end of the book. Particularly the passage on semicolons broke my longish-sentence-loving heart (a bit): it's not quite as painful as Kurt Vonnegut's dismissal of semicolons as "transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing", but to state that "you can lead a full and happy life without bothering with semicolons" (p.96) appears to me like a life without pugs did to the German comedian Loriot: possible, but certainly unfulfilled. (If you want to read up on the qualities of the sexiest and most elegant of all punctuation marks, I'd recommend this.)

From about two thirds of the book onwards, For Who the Bell Tolls (!) goes back to discussing good (mainly in the sense of non-offensive) writing style rather than focussing on the purely grammatical: how to use foreign words correctly, if you're sense of superiority can't do without them altogether; how to spot and fight incomprehensible or misleading jargon; how to write non-offensively (known as 'politically corrrect' to those who don't get it); and how to battle empty phrases and clichés in the form predominantly distributed by newspapers and other media. What's mainly of interest here and also a very valid point, is that Marsh sheds light on how language - and its sloppy or even misleading and wrong use of it - influences and shapes our world. This is by no means a new thought, as pretty much everybody who deals in words has found out at one point of their lives, but no less worth repeating in the age of "ethnic cleansing" and "preemptive strikes".

The volume finishes with a personal and annotated top ten of language books for the future word nerd, and an index that helps you to quickly find topics like "berks and wankers" (they're referred to on pages 29 to 30) or "pedantry, up with which not to put" (p. 40).

As mentioned at the beginning, Marsh is a great fan of using plain, concise language and he sticks to his own maxime, which is generally a godsend, but in this case particularly welcoming. He occasionally tends towards the more awkward simile that puts pictures at least in my mind that I had never dreamed of in the context of language. Just to take two examples that occur within only a few pages of each other: the wrong use of the 'who' instead of the object case 'whom' can in some instances stick out "like a cucumber stuffed down a Chippendale's thong" (p. 61), or a phrase left dangling at the beginning of a sentence feels "like a naked man trying to climb a barbed-wire fence" (p. 64). Ah, yes. Thank you; I'd already suspected grammar had something to do with penises and their substitutes...

So, For Who the Bell Tolls (it STILL hurts!) is a great, quirky and entertaining book if you always wanted to know what Milton and Yoda have in common, or what exactly 'antanaclasis' is and how to use it. In short, it's the right book for you if you want to prove a total word nerd at the next Halloween party - and seriously: who wouldn't?

Book info:
David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls. London: Faber & Faber and Guardian Books, 2013. GBP 12.99. (hard cover)

P.S.: I normally wouldn't point out typos in a review unless they seriously distract from the reading, but I think it's just too hilarious to find a mix-up of "their" and "there" in a book that is all about explaining the difference between them and eliminating mistakes such as these - so I hope that in this case I may be forgiven: dearest editor, take a look at page 230, bottom half.


  1. Ha! Good one. Put it in for the pedants, obviously. :)

  2. Same with the "you're" (sense of superiority) I am sure. ;) Great review, btw.

  3. Your absolutely right ;-p
    And thank you!

    I hid another one; major brownie points for the finder.

  4. *LOL* Pssst - would it involve a grammar nazi? ;)

  5. Can we "hear" some of the grammar playlist, too? This one arose my curiosity :)

    Definitiv mein Blog-Highlight diese Woche, deine Rezi! Plus: Du bist dem "Bot" bereits ganz wortreich von der Benachrichtigungsklippe gesprungen!!

    Buchstabenbunte Grüße
    das A&O

    1. Never got a reply but here's an extract of the chapter with the playlist that was published today:
      The Sound of Syntax

  6. Just asked David whether he put it up on iTunes or elsewhere, I'll post a link or further details as soon as I know more.

    Und danke, das Lob tut gut! :) Diese Woche bin ich nur so früh dran, weil ich letzte Woche zahlen musste...