Grown-Ups Deserve Better


Square Peg, part of the Random House group, is a publisher located at 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. Kyle Books is another publisher, headquartered at 192-198 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. The two sets of staff could walk along Vauxhall Bridge Road to have lunch together and discuss upcoming titles. But it looks as if they don’t, because in 2012 they each put out separate books under the same title, Grammar for Grown-Ups.

One was by Craig Shrives, formerly a British military intelligence officer (he worked for a while under Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul). His book was first published by Kyle Books under the title Grammar Rules: Writing With Military Precision (2011), and then for some reason reissued in 2012 as Grammar for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know but Never Learnt in School.

The other was by Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton, and was published by Square Peg in 2012 under the title Grammar for Grown-Ups: A Straightforward Guide to Good English.

The similarities do not stop at the main titles. Both books have white hard cardboard covers decorated with ruled lines reminiscent of an exercise book, and have pictures of pens and ink blots (as if that was how we all still wrote). Both have lettering mainly in blue with contrasting text in a red/orange hue. Both use a childish mix of upper and lower case for the main title, and both have the subtitles in cursive handwriting.

It is hard to imagine that this is all coincidence; yet it is also hard to imagine that two publishers would want to make their wares so confusingly similar. I’m deeply puzzled.

But my puzzlement over the weird titling and design similarities is not the reason I have both books on my desk and a furrow on my brow. What worries me is the actual grammatical analysis supplied, the stuff on nouns and verbs and relative clauses and so on (setting aside the recommendations and stipulations about semicolons, apostrophes, oft-confused word pairs, etc.). These books purvey the same old boilerplate and patently false claims that have been repeated in books about English grammar ever since the 18th century.

All the old blather shows up, in both books: that nouns are naming words (doesn’t every word name something?), that adjectives describe things (isn’t the noun idiot an excellent describing word?), that prepositions always stand before nouns (they don’t), that pronouns replace nouns so as to avoid repetition thereof (an indefensible myth), and so on.

These claims and definitions are hopeless, offering neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for having the properties they are trying to define. And they are given in defiance of the fact that the examples in the same section or even on the same page refute them. To cite just one example, Shrives asserts without qualification that “A preposition sits before a noun” (Page 77), and then within three pages he gives an example where there is no such noun (A decision about whether the elections were legal is pending; the preposition about is followed by an interrogative clause in this case, but he doesn’t notice that).

Of the two books, Shrives is clearly worse: Fry & Kirton at least know something about when to put “usually” or “typically” into their rule-of-thumb generalizations. But both books continue the ancient tradition of parroting generalizations that cannot survive even a minute’s thought, and vague semantic supporting intuitions that cannot be clarified.

Shrives has a particularly strong tendency to peddle hoary prescriptivist dogma from the 18th century that even conservative usage advisers jettisoned long ago. He thinks that beginning a sentence with and is “considered a little risqué” (Page 71); that you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (Page 78); that you should beware of split infinitives (Page 90); and so on. The same old hackneyed and misguided advice, still being handed out after more than two centuries.

The thought that occurred to me as I browsed these two books, with their identical titles, publication years, and publishers’ locations, and their strikingly similar cover designs and contents, was that grown-ups deserve better. The general public should be able to get better information on the grammar of the most important language in the world than these two sorry specimens. Yet in a way it is unfair to pick them out: They are not especially atavistic or ill-informed; the sad fact is that they are typical of the popular books and school texts on English grammar that reach the market today.

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