Spotting author N.M. Gwynne on BBC1’s ‘Breakfast Show’ in early May promoting his book ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’, I quickly but in a request to the nice lady publicist at Ebury Press and was reading it within a couple days.
Unlike the other grammar book I read a couple months back, this one is more like a pocket digest version of the basics. It is also two books, carrying not only Gwynne’s section but also ‘Strunk’s Guide To Style’. If you discount Gwynne’s introduction, the two book sections have equal number of pages.
Gwynne was a Latin teacher originally so it’s not surprising that he takes this tact with his own section although he doesn’t bog you down with it, only pointing out that it and the German language contributed much to English. Considering how many other languages we’ve absorbed over the centuries into English, we have maintained some flexibility with words. Gwynne quite rightly points out that it is the rules of grammar that holds our written language together and why understanding how to use it properly is something we should all be capable of.
Once I got into reading how he lays down the rules, he bold highlights the important points, I suddenly realised that this book might not be for beginners, unless you’re familiar with some of the bigger words, and more for those who need to refine what they learnt a long while back or need a refresher.
It’s rather interesting to note that the reason Gwynne doesn’t give examples is because he’s seen people do them and then go back to their bad habits afterwards. Personally, I would think it would make more sense to find a way of giving better examples that they wouldn’t forget. Thinking that line of thought through a little, maybe showing bad examples that the reader can see that are wrong might be the way to go. After all, just reading what has to be done and doing so are also two different things as well.
I love his line on page 87 about adult learners should find someone with an objective eye to go check their writing. We exist. We’re called editors. It’s part of the job. Maybe learning to look at your own material as an editor would might help many writers. We all make mistakes in early drafts, myself included, but when it comes to self-editing, all writers should be capable of picking up and correcting most of them. The final editors, such as myself, should be catching the minor things missed rather than all of them. No work is going to be absolutely perfect but minimal mistakes has to be the target.
As with people going back to bad habits, the same is true even when things are pointed out as things don’t always sink in. Considering how the brain has a tendency to only remember a few things at a time, I think the best way to improve your grammar is actually to focus on one problem at a time until its correct use is ingrained and then move on to the next. Certainly, there is a stronger need to get the levels of grammar usage better at school.
One of my tests for all grammar books is seeing what they say about the proper use of ‘neither’ and ‘either’ and oddly Gwynne barely approaches their use, despite the fact it is one of the main things many people get wrong. He does point out that the ‘Oxford comma’ is an American indulgence, something which I call ‘commas with everything’ but I wish he had said more as to why it was wrong to some people in our country using them.
What must surely confuse some people is whether there should be an apostrophe with something like (I’ll italic than ditto in this instance) 1950s or 1950’s and he says both can be acceptable which surely could have been elaborated better. If you’re talking about the 1950s, then you wouldn’t use an apostrophe.
I did have an email conversation with Gwynne about his over-use of starting sentences with ‘And’ and semi-colons which he told me are ‘breakable under appropriate circumstances’, although I think that should have been explained better to the reader because they might see it as a means to ignore grammar, which defeats the object. He did say my comments have given him pause to think.
‘Strunk’s Guide To Style’ was American sourced and although much of it uses British English, I can’t help feel that over here those of us on this fair island aren’t always likely to pick up the differences. Although Strunk has been dead for a long time now, Gwynne points out that it can still be a useful guide for writing style. If you don’t think it’s adequate, in his afterword, Gwynne does point out other books that might be of more use.
I can’t help but wonder if there was a choice needed to pad the book up with a section on style and Gwynne or his editor thinking he couldn’t better Strunk. Although I think the bigger books out there would serve you better, if you need a pocketbook version to carry with you, then this one will probably be adequate until something comes along to trump it for content.