Beyond Words by John Humphrys was published in 2006 in the wake of the popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves. It’s very much in the same vein, essentially a extended rant about the use of language, though Humphrys’s is rather less instructive. The back cover has one of the most accurate blurbs I’ve read in a long time: “What are the words and expressions that irk, intrigue and provoke John Humphrys?”
Amusingly, the book is subtitled ‘How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now’. I hypothesise that this subtitle was not submitted by Mr Humphrys himself. Firstly, I Don’t Think He’d Approve Of Capitalisation Of The First Letter Of Every Word. In fact, he rails against it in the book. Secondly, his narrative does not address ‘how language reveals the way we live now’. Not really. It is just a jolly romp through the modern day use of language.
This is entertaining, engaging, and it makes some interesting points about the development of language. It’s also genuinely funny. He has particularly memorable rants against familiar targets such as “Your M&S” (“The slogan implies that the product or service has been specially designed just for you personally. It hasn’t. The stuff is mass-produced for a mass market and the business – like almost every other large business around the world – is becoming less and less personal.”) and the Inland Revenue (“‘working with the largest customer base of any UK organisation’” is meaningless because the “customers” simply have no choice).
In contrast to Lynne Truss, who, apparently without irony, lamented the decline of formal English in an unnecessarily conversational grammar guide, John Humphrys takes a more reflective and analytical approach to changes in language. His tone is equally conversational and laced with humour, but without the repetitive vitriolic condemnation of the reader typical of Truss. And, in fairness, without the perhaps useful instruction that Truss provides.
Humphrys is easy to read. Perhaps it’s the way his voice is imprinted on my brain from years of listening to Radio 4, but his book reads almost as if one is in the room with him, and listening to a well-argued, highly entertaining monologue. And, unlike lesser authors, Humphrys is not trying to argue that misplaced apostrophes are the cause of social decline: He takes a reasoned approach to his arguments, which makes his conclusions seem all the more valid.
All-in-all, Beyond Words is a great read. It’s interesting and informative, genuinely funny, and short enough not to labour its points. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the English language.
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