Pangs over the write stuff

Compose Yourself and Write Good English. First edition
November 26, 2004

Reading this book recalled the terrible sense of dread I felt when studying the comments made by my supervisor on early drafts of my PhD. Looking at the pages slashed with red ink was almost physically painful and analogous to a kind of blood-letting. As my supervisor corrected the grammar and sentence structure, she scribbled slogans of protest - “jargon”, “unclear”, “turgid”, “meaning?” On one occasion she took her red pen to a passage that was in fact a quotation from a famous Marxist sociologist without realising it. This illustrates one of the central points in Harry Blamires’ book: we live in a “verbally infected environment” in which bad forms of expression intrude on and damage our attempts to write and think.

Compose Yourself is a 247-page inoculation against the plague of poor writing and loose thinking in public life. The book is an extended list of ill-used phrases drawn from many sources including the publications of British Waterways and the news broadcasts on BBC Radio 4. Blamires argues that the pervasiveness of bad writing is not a result of an insufficient understanding of grammar or sentence structure.

The problem is that we use words in a loose and imprecise way. For example, the tight connotations of words such as “terrific” (great, intense, frightening) or “incredible” (beyond belief or understanding) are dissipated in contemporary usage.

Blamires urges the reader to “fix their eyes on the virtues of directness and clarity” and to resist modish clich? and fashionable wordiness. While he does not draw his examples from academic writing, there is a great deal to learn from this book for student and tenured professor alike. Blamires advises his reader to avoid stylised verbal menus and superfluous phrases. The message is to think carefully about each sentence. The clear-minded thinker should aspire to clarity, brevity and precision in writing and speaking.

Blamires’ diagnosis is often accurate but his pedantry is sometimes off the mark. “The word ‘truth’ must not be qualified so as to suggest that there are degrees of ‘truth’,” he writes. Here Blamires sounds like a character from an episode of the TV series Grumpy Old Men objecting to modern linguistic foibles.

The virtues extolled in Compose Yourself are not always appealing. Pristine clarity is no protection from writing truly awful things. A case can be made for the usefulness of abstract, or even turgid, styles of argument. The critic Theodor W. Adorno criticised the advocates of clarity “as traitors to what they communicate”. For Adorno, the insistence on plain language results in the acceptance of commonsense views of the world.

Approaching this review I felt a pang of anxiety reminiscent of my days as a graduate student. The high-minded tone of the book produces a feeling that one is just a word away from the next mistake. We need to take risks in our writing and learn through trial and error, but the book did not leave me with this feeling. As a consequence, students may not be inspired to achieve better composition but feel even more anxious about their inability to write it right.

Les Back is professor of sociology, Goldsmiths College, London.

Compose Yourself and Write Good English. First edition

Author - Harry Blamires
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 247
Price - £12.99 and £ 7.99
ISBN - 0 14 101052 5 and 101053 3

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