For Who the Bell Tolls (2013)
By David Marsh
Guardian Faber Publishing
"While other books – to borrow from Talking Heads – quickly “Stop Making Sense”, this one walks on stage and makes a whole lot of sense."
The market for books about English usage and grammar in particular has in my mind become polarised in the last decade or so between books that tell you off and those that genuinely give encouragement. Something strange has happened. The prescriptive/descriptive views are now Old School. The new paradigm is punitive and … well, plain old helpful. This new release by David Marsh, production editor at the Guardian newspaper since 1996 and editor of its style guide on language and language blogger, is a quirky book written with a genuine passion that is rarely found in grammar books. To say it simply, this is a joy to read.
An obvious passion for English
So what makes For Who the Bell Tolls (2013) so good? Again, the answer is simple. It is written by a journalist. Or put better, a journalist wrote it. Academics will reject the idea that most academics can't write. But there is a reason that newspapers, magazines and news organisations employ journalists to fill their pages rather than academics. The former know how to strip away the jargon and synthesize complicated ideas into good clean copy that is understandable and easy to read.
Marsh has combined the skills of journalism with an obvious passion for English to tell the world: how to tell focusing adverbs from co-ordinating conjunctions, when to use restrictive clauses instead of non-restrictive clauses and which Latinisms are appropriate in which social setting. He achieves this without ever becoming yawn-inducing or feel the need to crack the whip.
The book’s 12 chapters divide into themes and categories that are standard fare in many other titles of a similar ilk. These include sections on grammatical terms, punctuation, problem areas of usage, confusable words, common errors, avoiding jargon, political correctness when it comes to words and not to mention a short A–Z of watchwords. However, what sets For Who the Bell Tolls apart – and I should say above – from the others the way that Marsh does the telling.
Commas without comas
It is clear from reading the book that David Marsh is a witty man who loves music. The opening chapters introduce the concepts of grammar, syntax and punctuation by uniquely wrapping each complex segment in colourful analogy and storytelling – often embellished with musical references. For example, one section entitled ‘the sounds of syntax’ introduces word order and subject-verb-object by deconstructing the Beatles hit She Loves You. She is the subject. Love this is the verb. You is the (direct) object. She, points out Marsh, is also a pronoun – it stands in for a noun.
Using this entertaining and imaginative technique, the author layer by layer unpacks a reverse snowball of linguistic complexity that is fun and informative, while competing books only manage to induce comas. De La Soul explain Me Myself and I, The Police Every Little Thing She Does is Magic and James Brown I got you (I feel good). This is grammar taught like never before.
But wait, there's more.
The remainder of the book is equally quirky, equally entertaining and equally informative. All of this is done without once insulting the reader, predicting the end of civilisation or being snide and superior. While a great many books in this category are, indeed, snide and superior – for there is clearly a market – the tone and presentation of For who the bell Tolls will appeal to those with an appreciation for the linguistic meanings echoed in Michael Jackson's, “I'm bad, I'm bad”.
Hidden tracks and B-sides
This book will undoubtedly appeal to those who love to pour over pages about the finer points of language and usage, while also seeking out new and unconsidered language traps. Unlike most similar books, this one also offers insights into the world of newspaper journalism, headline writing and the rules of good writing as practised in the trade. Again, this is something that academics and linguists cannot usually offer.
One of the unexpected and innovative additions to this book is the inclusion – footnote style – on each spread of the book of real-world tweets to marshes @Guardianstyle twitter feed in which he answers questions on style and usage. These are like the old hidden tracks on vinyl or CD – a medley of bonus materials that are definitely not B-side fillers.
The book ends with a personal touch in the form of David Marshall is very own top 20 of books and websites about language, which he says is borrowed from the book The Kings English by Kingsley Amis. [And, to add my own personal touch to this review, here dear readers is where I personally felt a rush of nerves at the thought that maybe my own book would feature in this illustrious list. But, alas, no. Not to worry.] His list stands as a great resource for those wanting to discover more great books about the English language.
In summary, I loved this book for its readability, entertaining and encouraging nature, as well as for being for being accessible and positive about a subject that causes many people to shudder or feel ashamed when really they are already much better at it than they think. “Don’t Believe the Hype”, says Marsh. While other books – to borrow from Talking Heads – quickly “Stop Making Sense”, this one walks on stage and makes a whole lot of sense.
About the author
Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English and editor of whichenglish.com.