Book reviews: Misadventures in the English Language by Caroline Taggart

editorial image

In the age of emails, texts and social media, many would claim that spelling, grammar, punctuation and all those other rules of language are now merely the preserve of pedants.

Caroline Taggart, a former non-fiction editor and author who has become an enthusiastic, light-hearted but learned guardian of good grammar, would disagree, and her new foray into our beautiful but complex English language provides an entertaining ride through common faux pas, gobbledygook and other modern horrors.

Following the success of 500 Words You Should Know and New Words for Old, this fascinating exploration of common language ‘misadventures’ looks fairly and squarely at some of the most controversial aspects of English usage – grammar, vocabulary and punctuation – and tries to assess what matters, and what doesn’t.

Listening closely – and maybe even obsessively, Taggart openly admits – to the use of language has made her sensitive to every nuance, every choice of word and phrase, and the all too common misuse of English.

Snobbery, she tells us, has always had, and probably always will have, a role to play in what we consider ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in language but, a great believer in using ‘the right word in the right place,’ Taggart still maintains that it would be a shame to lose age-old nuances for want of paying a little attention.

Punctuation and spelling, she so rightly declares, is there to help rather than annoy, conveying meaning to the reader in just the same way that obeying grammatical rules can help avoid ambiguity. If you say what you mean, she claims, you don’t have to shrug your shoulders and say ‘Well, you know what I mean.’

Thus it always pays to be precise in your punctuation… the hackneyed examples of ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ and ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ show how a comma can make all the difference.

And it’s not just punctuation that comes under scrutiny; Taggart also shows us why tautologies are simply annoying, how corporate speak can actually mean nothing at all, and why naughty, awful, sophisticated and virtue are all words that have evolved to mean something completely different.

Language, its usage and vocabulary are changing all the time and something that was correct a hundred years ago can seem laughably stilted in modern parlance, just as a word that early 20th century pedants abhorred may now be commonplace.

Using her skills, knowledge and experience, Taggart covers all the aspects of the English language that could be problematic and considers where we are now, appraising (and often praising!) the invention of new words, from kidult (television programmes, films or games intended to appeal to both children and adults) to pescatarian (a vegetarian who also eats fish) and exploring internet-led abbreviations such as JK and IMHO.

Taggart also finds space to celebrate inventiveness, help readers avoid embarrassing clichés and jargon, put words in the right places and finally take pleasure in the richness, diversity and often amusing anomalies of the English language.

The perfect gift for anyone who speaks English!

(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £9.99)