Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage has been around since 2004, but it only just came to my attention recently. As the blurb says, it's the first totally new major English usage book published in the 21st century, and it's "based on the Cambridge International Corpus and the British National corpus, highlighting the points of contrast between American and British usage."

Jumping off from this trans-Atlantic difference, the website includes a diagnostic quiz, which says, "If you don't get the questions right, this is the book you need." But seven of ten "usage" differences are simply spelling variations.

The physical book itself is a lovely hardback with a glossy cover, high-quality paper, and a thoughtful use of type faces. It appears sturdy and would likely endure a good deal of use.

And the contents then? I don't plan to actually read the book cover to cover, so the following observations will be somewhat scattered:
  • On the positive side, Peters doesn't begin by assuming that you know what she's talking about. The entry for passive verbs, for example, is broken into three sections: 1 the grammar of the passive, 2 style in the passive, and 3 the passive in scientific writing, with part 1 being a reasonable explanation of what a passive verb is: "one in which the subject undergoes the process or action expressed in the verb."
  • If we jump over to see what a subject is, however, we run into the usual problems: "the person or thing which operates the verb." This definition simply cannot logically coexist with the definition of the passive given above. Fortunately, the book does go beyond that, though, to mention that the subject governs subject-verb agreement.
  • Skipping back to the entry for passive, we find that Peters repeats the general slander against this maligned voice. Passive clauses, "are not the stuff of lively narrative when you want to know who is doing what. Used too often as in some academic and official styles, they make for dreary reading." She at least admits that the passive has its place, but she gives no examples of these dreary passives. The only examples she does give seem contrived: "The employment of staff with less than six months service will be terminated" is said to be better than, "We, the senior management, will terminate the employment of staff with less than six months service."
  • On the same spread as passive is an entry for parvenu or parvenue. Apparently this is one of the 4,000 entries that Peters though was disputed enough to include. To be honest, I don't think I'd even met the word before. The COCA says it occurs about 5-15 times per 100 million words with the BNC being at the upper range of that. So, hardly a common word. But is this actually a smouldering question: parvenu or parvenue? Hmm... (Mind you, it's not like this kind of trivial point seems to be displacing weightier issues. Never did I think to look something up only to find it not addressed.)
  • I asked my wife what to look up, and she suggested conditionals. There is indeed a short entry on conditionals, though oddly enough it seems to focus on French and Italian, viz, "English verbs have no conditional forms, and instead the modal verb would is commonly used to translate conditionals from French and Italian," (should you have the opportunity to do so...). The entry goes on to say, "conditional statements in English are often attached to a conditional clause, prefaced by if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause." I'm not sure whether this is a subject-verb agreement error (i.e., *a conditional clause are a type of adverbial) or a factual error (i.e., if, unless or provided that, which are a type of adverbial clause).
  • As I typed viz, above, I thought, "now here's a chance to put this book to use." I looked it up, and learned that the z is actually the printer's substitute for ezh (ʒ), an abbreviation for -et. Interesting, but what I really wanted to know was, should I italicize it?
  • The entry for logogram, logograph, logotype, and logo is pretty much all news to me, but ignores the meaning I do know: the type of writing system exemplified by Chinese characters (e.g., 手 is the logograph for hand). On the same page, we find loony or loonie, which correctly describes the situation here in Canada (loony = adj. crazy, loonie = n. one dollar coin.)
  • The entry for decimate is generally quite good with clear examples showing the reduce-by-10% sense, the reduce-to-10% sense, and the more common, but less mathematical, meaning, along various others.
  • Ravage or ravish is also well done. Of ravish, Peters writes, "the two kinds of meaning have their respective clichés in ravished virgins and ravished audiences, which are symptomatic of the fact that the word is usually either euphemistic or hyperbolic."
After spending a couple of hours with the book, I sadly find few entries particularly helpful. Despite the corpus-based approach, very few examples of use are typically given and though the author occasionally lets her voice shine through (as in ravish, above) these entertaining bits are not the norm. In contrast, Peters's opinions are obvious, and it's often unclear what, if any, corpus evidence has been brought to bear in forming them (as in passive, above). All in all, the hype about the book being corpus-based is accurate, but I find the actual implementation somewhat superficial. The most prominent application seems to be to the endless disputed spellings to which far too much of the book is given over: doughnut or donut; doyly, doyley, or doiley; drily or dryly; drivable or driveable; driveling or drivelling; dyarchy or diarchy; dullness or dulness, and on and on. If you really don't know which to use, you can check the COCA or the BNC for free and save yourself the cost of the book. For other issues, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage displays much more scholarship and will only cost you half as much.


Nick said...

Isn't ʒ yogh? Maybe it has more than one name. Parvenu and Parvenue, I have always said that parvenu is a man and parvenue is a woman because it's etymology is French. I'd consider this one of the rare nouns in English that are declined. My belief, though, I may be wrong. I remember this as an example from a teacher a long time ago as a declined noun in English. I may be misremembering though.

Brett said...

Yogh is a different though similarly-shaped letter.

Circeus said...

@Nick, yeak, I seem to remember there is a broader style issue whether those few adjective like parvenu, blond or latino should be made to agree in English.

It's sad, really, especially given how good the Cambridge GRAMMAR of English is (I suspect it actually covers quite a few strictly style issues better than this style guide does).

Nick said...

I'm a little confused Circeus. What do you mean? Would you explain more?

Q Higuchi said...

Aaaah I have got that one, too; in fact, I jumped to it when it came out. I actually intended to read it from cover to cover, but I got tired of it at page 89 (so my bookmark tells me), discovering essentially the same thing as you have: some interesting topics, weak grammar.

As for italicizing 'viz.', you have to be directed from 'viz.' to 'Latin abbreviations', and read through the entry until you reach the last paragraph where you would conclude, OK, perhaps 'viz.' should be italicized, but then again, it doesn't necessarily have to be.

Despite these, I kind of like the book, and still keep it handy. Perhaps this is one for the bathroom ...

Circeus said...

@Nick Should parvenu agree in gender (the feminine being parvenue)? Same for blond/blonde (note that the final d is only pronounced in the feminine in French), latino/latina and a few others I can't remember.

Nick said...

I know it does technically for blond/blonde...for latino/latina, to each his own, and for parvenu/parvenue, I do it that way, but again to each his own. I also say, "I wish grammar WERE easier", when many say "I wish grammar WAS easier" so you can't always go by prescriptivism.

Nick said...

Loonies and toonies piss me off. When I was in Toronto last August, I gave those away as tips and to the mendicants on the street. They were weighing my pocket down. Thank God for 1 and 2 dollar bills here in the states.

Nick said...

Isn't it "English as she is spokeN?" Or can "spoke" be a past participle?

Nick said...

Does anyone know who this "goofy" guy is?