Book review

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
Pam Peters (Macquarie University)
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0 521 62181 X HB 622 pp. RRP: $75.00

Reviewed by Shauna Ellis
Catchword, Issue 99, Spring 2004

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage – YOU be the authority!

And you can be. The slogan is used by Cambridge University Press to advertise Pam Peters' descriptive grammar-cum-dictionary-cum-current language commentary that really does allow you to make an informed decision on up-to-date usage and spelling. It is refreshing to open a text on English usage and be informed, not ‘talked down’ to from a God-like authority, whose word is law. You may decide whether you prefer being a stickler for tradition or to stick your neck out and move with the times.

At first I opened the Cambridge Guide to English Usage for a quick look. One thing led to another, and an hour or so later I was still flipping from the ‘d’s to the ‘p’s, from horrid ‘irregardless’ to ‘whatever or what ever’. If you have even a moderate interest in this dynamic language of ours, you will be fascinated by this reference book. It is clearly laid out in alphabetical order with judicious use of bold print and has a ‘chunky’ authoritative appeal.

Pam Peters wrote this book to replace an outdated Fowler's Guide to Modern English. In ‘English without fears’, an article in the ‘Review’ she says,

Some wondered [in the 1920s] about how acceptable abbreviations such as ad and OK were outside their home base in North America. Language commentators debated the acceptability of alright: according to the Oxford Dictionary (1884–1928) it was a frequent spelling, whereas Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) dubbed it a ‘vulgarism’.
Grammar and the world have both moved on since the 1920s, when Fowler wrote his Modern English Usage. The word modern itself seems fairly out of date. …
The Weekend Australian, 12–13 June 2004, pp. 12–13.

Poor Fowler, who has stood editors in good stead for many years, seems to be getting a hammering. But when you compare his explanations with Peters', there is no contest. For example, compare the concluding remarks on the ‘Split Infinitive’ of Fowler's 1,200-word analysis with those that conclude Peters' 400-word explanation:

It is perhaps hardly fair that this article should have quoted no split infinitives except such as, being reasonably supposed (as in 4) to be deliberate, are likely to be favourable specimens. Let it therefore conclude with one borrowed from a reviewer, to whose description of it no exception need be taken: ‘A book…of which the purpose is thus—with a deafening split infinitive—stated by its author: “Its main idea is to historically, even while events are maturing, and divinely—from the Divine point of view—impeach the European system of Church and States”.
Fowler's Modern English Usage 1968, p. 582
Most usage guides including Fowler (1926) recommend a judicious approach to splitting infinitives, and do not endorse the knee-jerk reaction of C19 pedagogues or the latter-day computer style checker. The consensus is:
  • Don't split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence.
  • Do split infinitives to avoid awkward wording, to preserve a natural rhythm, and especially to achieve the intended emphasis and meaning.
The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, p.513

It is reassuring that Pam Peters understood Fowler's ruling and explanation on the split infinitive and could translate it for those of us with a less exhaustive (and exhausting) understanding of the language.

Throughout the Cambridge guide there are handy boxed statements on international usage and, like the spoon icon in Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion, there are diamond icons that lead the reader to related explanations. Whether you need to understand the meaning of ‘chiasmus’, ‘fornix’ or ‘in medias res’, or to use ‘resumé’ or ‘résumé’, this is the guide for you. Pam Peters has achieved her aim in writing this guide that is as useful for a professional editor as it would be for a high school student.

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004) has been written with this aim, to identify the elements of English that are region-free and to provide 21st-centruy advice on many still-disputed points of language.
Pam Peters, ‘English without fears’, ‘Review’, The Weekend Australian, 12–13 June 2004, p. 13.

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