Grammar, syntax, and style

Inspired by Geoff Pullum’s Language Log posting on “the grammar gravy train”, Bradshaw of  the Future has alerted us (here) to the wonders of Ned Halley’s Dictionary of Modern English Grammar: Grammar, Syntax and Style for the 21st Century (Wordsworth Reference, 2005) — a strange and dreadful book.

The back-cover blurb:

Is there a right way to speak and write English? This unique new guide to the language is dedicated to answering the question – in Plain English. Compiled for readers from school age onwards, this is a book of easy reference. It explains the workings of 21st-century English, from the most basic rules of grammar and spelling to the origins of the language in the ancient world, and the curiosities of current slang. Included is latest advice on the abbreviated language of the text message, and how to navigate the treacherous linguistic realms of political correctness.

(Yes, origins in the ancient world. In the introduction (pp. 7-8), we’re told that “English is largely rooted in ancient Greek and Latin, and to grasp this is, I believe, a key to understanding how modern English works, and how we can use it to best effect.”)

The book is an alphabetically arranged list of topics that seem to be united only by Halley’s interest in them, and only a few entries have to do with grammar. Many entries are too brief to be useful, and a fair number are simply wrong.

In any case, we get the usual word choice advice (flaunt vs. flout), plenty of entries on buzz words, literary terms, recent slang, punctuation, and spelling, and inventories of things like eponyms (Braille) and fictional stereotypes (Scrooge). There’s even an entry on Bushisms. And some astonishing minutiae, as in this entry:

WWF The former World Wildlife Fund is now the Worldwide Fund for Nature, but continues to known as the WWF.

The book is very heavy on technical terminology in several language-related fields, especially terminology taken from Ancient Greek : aporia, anastrophe, apocope, antonomasia, and my personal favorite, epizeuxis, defined as

Part of speech [I assume Halley was aiming for “figure of speech”, though even that’s not quite appropriate] in which a word is repeated for emphasis, as in “that is so, so not funny.”

(Halley is fond of the term “figure of speech”, applying it to, among other things, alliteration, anaphora, palindromes, and parenthesis.)

Halley isn’t afraid to introduce his personal opinions. The entry for modernism begins

In government policy and thought, modernism is taken to mean a kind of approach to formulating legislation on a current, rather than a historical basis.

and goes on to take swipes at the Labour government first elected in 1997. The non-standard English entry tells us that it’s a

Term used by educationists to describe bad English.

More slaps at “educationists” (along with an inadequate definition) in the phoneme entry:

In speech, a unit of sound. In the world of literacv-teaching, phoneme is a buzz word, used to elevate what was once called a ‘word sound’ into a more scientific-sounding term.

Halley is confused about ‘word sounds’. Here’s what he says about syllable:

Word sound. Every word is composed of one or more syllables.

While I’m in the entries under the letter S, here’s the solecism entry:

A grammatical absurdity or a statement that makes no sense (see Bushisms).

and the syllogism entry:

An invalid form of reason in which parallel ideas are falsely made to meet, as in “all cows are animals, therefore all animals are cows.

Logicians take note.

Still in the letter S, there’s sentence:

In grammar, it is a collection of words expressing words expressing a complete idea or item of information. The first word has an initial capital letter and the whole thing ends with a full stop.

and subject:

In grammar, the noun or pronoun that predicates a sentence.

Ok, I can’t resist one more, this time from R:

received pronunciation English spoken without regional accent.


This is definitely not a book to give to your language-loving friends, or to someone who wants useful advice on grammar, style, and usage.

8 Responses to “Grammar, syntax, and style”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    On the other hand, it sounds like it would make a terrific Btoadway musical.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    What, no mention of ISO, the International Organization for Standardization? (Known to francophones, of course, as “Organisation internationale de normalisation”.)

  3. mollymooly Says:

    Wordsworth is a publisher that began with bargain-price out-of-copyright classic texts. It expanded into Reference, mainly reprinting outdated works, sometimes lightly updated.

    Since Ned Halley also gets credit for Wordsworth’s “Dictionary of drink” and “Complete prophecies of Nostradamus”, I suspect he’s the updater rather than the originator.

  4. Singular, plural, collective « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Grammar, syntax, and style […]

  5. goofy Says:

    Wow, you found some even stranger things than I did.

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To goofy (a.k.a. BoftF): oh, there’s plenty more. It was hard to choose just a few things. (It would be loony to spend time on an item-by-item critique.)

  7. Oskar Says:

    syllogism: An invalid form of reason in which parallel ideas are falsely made to meet, as in “all cows are animals, therefore all animals are cows.

    Wow. Just wow. Somebody should really have told Aristotle that a syllogism is “an invalid form of reason”, it would’ve really saved him some time and effort.

    Seriously, at least make an effort to know what you’re talking about! Just look it up on Wikipedia, fer chrissakes! There’s a search box right there in the sidebar, it takes three minutes!

  8. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Oskar: Halley must have gotten some of this material from sources (though none are cited), but I suspect that some of it he produced from (faulty) memory or just made up. Yes, it’s scandalous.

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