The Handbook of Good English
guide to grammar, punctuation, usage, and style
Some writing guides are not much more than a list of grammatical rules, with illustrative examples and tips on what to avoid. Even though it uses grammatical elements as its structure, The Handbook of Good English is almost the opposite of that. Edward Johnson is an editor with a passion for language and the way it is used. What he seeks to explain is not just grammatical rules but the reasons why some forms of writing are more persuasive and elegant than others.
And he does this in a very leisurely manner, which is what makes this book so long – and comprehensive. He starts with sentences, then works his way to parts of speech and punctuation. At best, the examples and explanations he gives are good for being so succinct – as in his discussion of the gerund:
I dislike that man’s wearing a mask and I dislike that man wearing a mask are different statements. In the first, the wearing of the mask is disliked; in the second, the man is disliked. In the first statement, wearing is a gerund – that is, a special verb form that functions as a noun.
He covers every possible combination of circumstances which can arise to create problems: how to show quotations within quotations, dashes within parentheses, foreign words, and the titles of newspapers, plays, and the parts of a book. His thoroughness is almost exhausting. There are twenty-seven pages on the comma and thirty-four on the hyphen alone.
He’s what might be called a liberal or tolerant prescriptivist, because whilst permitting occasional exceptions, he does ultimately seek to establish rules:
the functionless comma does no harm, but nevertheless, commas that have no function should be omitted, just as words that have no function should be omitted (see Rule 1-4).
He takes full account of the differences between American and UK use of English, and it is interesting to note that (contrary to what UK traditionalists imagine) changes and influences operate in both directions.
Grammar issues apart, the chapter most readers will enjoy is his last – where he gives excellent advice on writing style. This covers subtle matters such as tone, diction, pace, attitude, and construction.
But at times, his approach is not so felicitous. I found it slightly annoying that a lot of his topics started off with bad examples. There are so many reasons why writing can be clumsy and ill-formed, this leads him into lengthy discussions of all the possible corrections and alternatives, after which he is forced to say:
It must be admitted that the correct versions of these sentences are much harder on the ear or eye than the incorrect versions, and that rewriting them would be advisable.
It’s a book which will probably be of most use to those people who already have a reasonable command of basic English, but who would like to know why some common grammatical problems are wrong or unacceptable – as well as how to put them right. In this sense it can be used as both a book of instruction or reference.
© Roy Johnson 2000
Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English, New York: Washington Square Press, 1991, pp.426, ISBN: 0671707973
Writing skills links
- Improve your Writing Skills (.pdf)
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