Sunday, 30 May 2010

Book Review: 'I Used To Know That: English' - (Michael O'Mara Books)

I Used To Know That: English
(stuff you forgot from school)

Patrick Scrivenor
Series editor Caroline Taggart
Michael O´Mara Books 2010
ISBN 9781843174776

From the blurb: "While it's true to say that the English language is full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary, an understanding of certain essential rules can make all the difference to spoken and written English. Succinct and accessible, I Used to Know That: English will teach you everything you should have learned at school..."



Hot on the heels (or should that be 'suffixes') of the wonderful My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?), already reviewed here, comes another marvellous little English language opus from quirky publisher Michael O'Mara Books. And this time they are offering three lucky readers (3) of the ELT Resources Review Blog (that's you lot) a copy absolutely free - just comment on this review to take part!

So how, you may be wondering, does I Used to Know That: English - stuff you forgot from school (or should that be 'stuff you've forgotten...'?) differ from the similarly-named My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?) - old-school ways to sharpen your english?

Well... the first obvious difference is that the former was co-written by Caroline Taggart, while the new volume is by a certain Patrick Scrivenor, with Ms Taggart named as the Series Editor.
" is at hand in the genial form of Patrick Scrivenor, whose mantra is, wherever possible, 'keep it simple'. He admires accuracy, but despises pedantry."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The publicity material claims that I Used to Know That: English 'does for grammar what Eats, Shoots and Leaves did for punctuation, clearing up confusion with a light touch. The problem is that My Grammar and I also pretty much did the same thing!

In a desperate quest to distinguish usefully between these two worthy titles, I'm clutching at two reviewer's straws.
"Since you should avoid them but cannot, you might as well know what adjectives do."
The first is that I Used To... is slightly less jovial and a bit more instructive in its approach. I feel it takes the stance that prosepctive purchasers would genuinely like to hear what it has to say with a view to improving their daily utterances. My Grammar and I more firmly fell into the category of entertaining stocking-filler, as much to amuse (in an erudite way) as to educate. Evidence of this is that there is no learned pun or joke in the title of the present title.
This is not to say that I Used To... is dry or musty in its approach - far from it, and we'll be getting to that later.

The second difference I can find is quite simply as any writer would want it to be: English is such a deep, rich source of rules and their exceptions, weird word groups and viciously arcane spelling conventions, that a new author will necessarily bring a whole new bunch of fonohlojicul fun to the elucidation table... Hell, I reckon I could write my own book in this darn series too!

One of the delightful aspects of this book is (or should that be 'are' ;-) the constant examples and humorous quotation which illustrate the points being made. I've likewise punctuated, or 'pricked' this review with a few choice snippets from the book, not necessarily representative, to liven it up a bit!
 "Not all dogs are fierce, not all men are fat and not all women are beautiful - not, at least, until you reach the age of seventy, when this situation magically remedies itself."
The book is divided into six broad categories, and bookended by a very pleasant foreword by the aforementioned Ms. Taggart, a short scene-setting introduction by the author, and a telling afterword by the same. I say telling, because in it he justifies what I recognised as I perused the book as sometimes surprising pedantry and stubborness in terms of just what 'correct' English is. Surprising because we are these days used to people telling us that English 'just is' and that the rules are made to be broken because they're all fundamentally flawed anyway, and certainly not adhered to, what with regional differences and neologisms from the States and rap music and goodness knows what else.

And yet Mr. Scrivenor reminds us that without knowing the rules in the first place, it is very difficult to break them with any degree of sophistication or cleverness which would, after all, be much less satisfying from a clever-dick intellectual smart-arse (or should that be 'ass'?) point of view. That last point was in my words, not the author's, by the way.

"GRAMMAR. The science of speaking correctly'
- Dr Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language

'Let school masters puzzle their brain
With grammar and nonsense and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genius a better discerning'

- Oliver Goldsmith, 'She Stoops to Conquer'

Good liquor does not seem to have helped Goldsmith with his first line. Presumably the singular 'brain' is there solely to rhyme with 'maintain'.

The six chapters are as follows:

Parts of Speech: I shall probably be modifying my TEFL Certificate session on this topic to incorporate a few of the apposite examples given here about nouns, adjectives, conjunctions, the decidedly weird adverbs and all the other members of this boisterous bunch.

Grammar: A short section which nevertheless covers the chosen topics (phrases, clauses, sentences, subjects and objects...) in a certain depth.

Spelling and Pronunciation: Covering gems like the nine ways of pronouncing 'ough', the 'ize' or 'ise' dilemma, and where to stress multi-syllable words (good luck!).

Punctuation: A lengthier section, true to this book's mission to sort out our written English above all, covering traditionally scary stuff such as the comma, the apostrophe and the unexpected three lengths of dash (or should that be 'hyphen'?).

Clear Usage: Which at first reminded me of Fowler's Plain English, or even Gowers' Plain Words, but which ultimately distinguises itself, within the constraints of this volume, with a more modern treatment of wordiness, clichés, double negatives and using foreignisms, to name but a few.

Pitfalls and Confusions: This final section is an alphabetical list of short entries on easily misused words or commonly confused word pairs. Affect and effect, childish and childlike, egoism and egotism, factitious and fictitious, principal and principle, and sensual and sensuous would be examples. The school boys' favourite, organism and orgasm, alas, would not.

"They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."
   ~ Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
The blurb's way of summarising the above is:

I Used To Know That: English includes:

Parts of speech, from nouns to conjunctions
Spelling and the traps you can fall into
Sentence construction
Punctuation, including those pesky apostrophes
Clear usage - and how to avoid common pitfalls
How to pick your way through jargon and gibberish

So, having now finished this review, I must admit I'm a bit nervous about publishing it, and thereby opening it up to the scholarly scrutiny of the Very Revered Mr. P. Scrivenor himself (not to mention the equally enthralling Ms. C. Taggart). Even that last sentence makes me cringe in anticipation of imminent eminent writers' wrath, and the number of anomalies I'll get slapped down for..!

Whatever the result, I offer up this humble commentary on this jolly little book, and hope it will be bought copiously and won thricely by you here good readers. Good Luck and, above all... Good Grammar (exceptions notwithstanding).


Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: 'I Used To Know That: English'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
Visit Hotch Potch English ~ The Unique English Teaching Website


Sab said...

Hi Everyone,

Thanks for grammaring by!

All you have to do to enter the competition to win a copy of 'I Used To Know That: English' is leave a comment on this blog!

So leave a comment NOW!

We look forward to hearing from you...

Anonymous said...

I Used to Know That: English
i would really like to win this book.
Keep up the good work, i,ll be following your website after the TEFL course
Andy P
June Course

Alex said...

This book comes across as being slightly, or maybe somewhat, intimidating, and yet quite possibly essential. A couple of typos have been buried in the review, no doubt to keep us on our toes :-) Alex M, Tournan

Sab Will said...

Alex: thanks for your alertness! No, in fact the book is a charmer - very nice and readable.

Thanks also for pointing out the 'typos'! Those pesky things slip in everywhere, don't they..?

I've corrected one, I think, (eminent for emminent) but what were the others?

Lesli said...

I think this book looks like a quick and delightful read.

I have the copy of My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?) in my room and am enjoying this book immensely.

I've accumulated piles of TEFL books/grammar/french language books on the floor in my room.

Books like these provide the most concise and consolidated information teacher, or scholar of languages/linguists/ education would need.

-lesli anne.

Anonymous said...

OK Sab, point well made!
i have now read both critiques carefully,and, i would have to accept that your comments have indeed tickled my taste buds.
I think effort at all times should be applauded and i like your website.Which as previously stated, i shall (100%) follow after the course. You may put me on the mailing list.
Grovelingly Yours.
Andy P.
PS,i,d still like a free copy though!!!

Alex said...

Hi Sab,
Thanks for your personal reply, I appreciate that. There was only one other unintended typo (I believe) which appears in the para above the picture of the open book: prosepctive purchasers
All the best

Anonymous said...

Hello all

I think that a grammar book is the perfect companion for all teachers and this one seems to have it all; humour and knowledge. The perfect recipe! Moz

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued. That said, how about:

"I Never Knew that, but I'd like to: English"

Possibly more accurate for some of us... :)


Jessica said...

I have learned more grammar in one TEFL session than my entire schooling! Embarrassing but true. Looks like a really informative and helpful book. Nice review!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jessica! I have learned a great deal about English grammar during this course and for that i thank you, Sab! This book looks interesting and would prove a useful too to any TEFL teacher.


Lauren said...

As a new English teacher, I love the idea of a book that is compact, can be carried on the Paris metro with ease, and still full of all the info we MUST have on hand, without the hassle of a huge grammar book, or an exhaustive dictionary of ALL phrasal verbs etc....thanks for making it easy and effective!

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