Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write . . . and Why it Matters

Simon Heffer is the latest pedant (a self-description) who has a high opinion of his linguistic tastes and wishes "to inflict them on his readers". Everyone appreciates a good model, and we might expect the associate editor of the Daily Telegraph to provide one. But when I saw, reading the blurb, that "accuracy and clarity are within the grasp of anyone who is prepared to take the time to master a few simple rules", my hopes fell. The rules aren't few, nor are they simple. If they were, we wouldn't have books like this one.

The three main sections of Strictly English start with "The Rules", a 40-page summary of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. "Bad English" considers grammar, vocabulary, tone and three sinners (who don't use plain English). "Good English" summarises good style and explores three stylistic saints (George Orwell, Barbara Pym and Enoch Powell). Appendices describe correct address and points of house style and terminology.

The problem with people who want to impose their linguistic tastes on others is that they never do so consistently. Heffer writes that we "should avoid passives", but the opening sentence of that section begins: "The passive voice of a transitive verb is used . . ." Indeed, the book is full of passives, starting with the first sentence of his prelims. Don't do as I do; do as I say.

Heffer says we must avoid long sentences, but many of his own are over 60 words. Saint George's prose, he says, is "remarkably lacking in conjunctions precisely because his sentences are so short". But the Orwell passage he quotes has 11 conjunctions in 30 lines and an average sentence-length of 22 words. "Master of the short sentence" - not. Saint Enoch is worse, with some sentences running to over 80 words.

Inconsistencies permeate the book. Heffer doesn't like "task" as a verb, but he likes "text". Metaphor adds richness to language, but also dilutes the force of words. He prefers the "short word to the long", but berates Obama for using enormity instead of enormousness. The apostrophe "is never to be used to signify plurals" - but A's, B's and C's are a "sensible convention".

Heffer hides his tastes behind the idea of what is logical, using variants of the word more often than Spock. "Rules in language are made by logic, not by a democratic vote," he writes. If only that were true: it would save grammarians so much bother. In fact, there is no logic behind his recommendations, other than the usual kind favoured by pedants: if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't.

Heffer seems to be unaware that thousands study English language in schools these days. Writing them all off as "insensitive to language" won't endear him to their teachers, many of whom know more about grammar than he does, and would rather use the fine grammars written in the past 40 years than the century-old sources on which he relies. Maybe if he'd read some of the new studies he wouldn't have made so many errors in his presentation of grammar. He thinks that nouns can only be the subject or object of a sentence (they can also be complements and adverbial). And he says that a sentence has to "begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop" - dismissing all sentences ending in a question mark or an exclamation mark.

This isn't the place to mark Heffer's grammatical accuracy out of ten (about six, I'd say), but it's worth noting some examples of how we would all have to speak and write if we followed his tastes. We would be committed to saying "None of John, Mary or Jane was at the funeral", "queens mother" (for a lot of queen mothers) and throwing "a die" (not "a dice"). If we don't agree with all this, we are "semi-literate", "barbarous" and "illogical".

It is a pity, because there are some excellent points here about ambiguity, honesty and the importance of clarity. I'm as concerned as Heffer about the need to improve standards of literacy, but this isn't the way to go about it. He condemns the tabloid use of "shock horror" vocabulary, such as when someone is "devastated because his football team has lost a match". So what are we to make of someone who describes normal everyday English usages as "horrific", "butchery" and "abomination"? It's not logical, captain.

David Crystal's latest book is "Begat: the King James Bible and the English Language" (Oxford University Press, £14.99)

Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write . . . and Why it Matters
Simon Heffer
Random House, 352pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture