Book review: For Who the Bell Tolls, by David Marsh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 5:31pm

For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection
by David Marsh
Guardian Faber
3.5 stars

Steven Poole

David Marsh, as production editor of British newspaper The Guardian and its style guru, is better placed than most to offer a practical guide to writing. He begins by explaining the mechanics of syntax through analysis of pop-song lyrics from The Beatles to De La Soul.

With admirable clarity, Marsh goes on to explain the gerund and subjunctive, the difference between comparing to and comparing with, and the correct use of "whom", avoidance of which has given this book its deliberately teeth-grating title. Cleverly, Marsh here inverts the usual reasons for understanding conventions. You need to know the rule for "whom" not because you should use "whom" whenever appropriate (because it will sometimes sound pompous), but because you need absolutely to avoid using "whom" when it should actually be "who", since that will sound both pompous and stupid.

Despite the deceptive subtitle, much of the rest of the book is not about grammar at all: it dissolves into an entertaining compendium of usage notes and mini-essays. (Lists of common mistakes provide filler, as apparently is inevitable in this kind of book.) Most satisfying is an angry chapter on so-called "political correctness", which demolishes the pretensions of those who think they have a right to abuse those less fortunate than themselves. What is decried as "politically correct" language, Marsh says, "mainly boils down to consideration for others. Is this such a terrible burden?" Only for those, one might suspect, who trade in self-congratulatory nastiness.

In the main, Marsh is wisely liberal. There is, he says, "no real justification" for insisting that "bored of"(instead of "bored with") is wrong. And if you want to boldly go, do it. "Feel free," he writes, "to insert anything you like, within reason, between the particle and the infinitive."

That "within reason" expresses a fine respect for the reader's own judgment, though it might be frustrating to the kind of grammar-guide buyer who expects to be told exactly how to write properly.

Guardian News & Media