Book of the Month
Comfortable Words
Publisher: Random House
Author: Bergen Evans
$18.25 (paperback)


Upper Intermediate

The sub-title to this book is 'Modern Guideposts to the use of Easy, Simple and Colorful English'. The book itself is a classic which has been in print for decades. The fact that it continues to sell shows that the author's original reason for writing the book still remains true today - 'No people can ever have existed [who are] as thoroughly cowed and intimidated by the use of its own speech as we seem to be.' The author violently objects to English usages such as 'Bill and myself went to the shop.' No sane English speaker would say 'Myself went to the shop' so that fact that the speaker went with Bill should make no difference. However, people are so afraid of sounding uneducated, and so terrified of making grammatical mistakes that their very uncertainty causes them to make the mistakes they fear. This book is a plea for English users to return to 'comfortable words': words they can be relaxed in using because they are sure they are using them correctly.

The origin of the book comes from something similar to the 'Ask the Prof.' section on this website. Readers would write to the New York Times newspaper with language queries. Every week the author - who really was a 'Prof.', a professor of English at Northwestern University in the USA - would reply to the most interesting of these questions. The result is a fascinating - if now slightly out-of-date - look at the language problems facing modern Americans.

The book proceeds with these questions in alphabetical order from 'A' to 'Y' (there is no 'Z'). One of the very first questions, and one which immediately grabs the attention of the reader is whether it is polite to use an indefinite article before a name. As in 'A Mr Jones is here to see you.' (This means that the speaker does not know who Mr Jones is, and also does not know if the person whom Mr Jones has come to see knows who Mr Jones is either.) The next issue is whether it is good usage to start a sentence with 'And'. (Hint: the Bible does this a lot.)

This continues for 369 pages of good-humoured and, well, comfortable prose. Over the course of the book it becomes apparent that the author feels that the richness and diversity of English is being strangled by attempts to sound 'proper'. He often takes a detour in the course of an explanation to attack critics whom today we call 'Grammar Nazis' - people who insist that their usage, and only their usage of English is correct. As he says, an occasional idiosyncracy in speech shows not ignorance but that the speaker is relaxed about his use and understanding of English. On the way we discover fascinating things about the language, such as, for instance,that the only word with a plural plural is 'agendum, agenda, agendas.'

So who is this book for? Almost anyone who is interested in English and how it is used will find something new and fascinating in this book. Language students will find it useful for untangling some of the more subtle uses of English such as innuendo, sarcasm and the hidden messages that native speakers seem able to hide in every sentence. And of course, this book will help readers to relax and use comfortable words.

Verdict: Verdict Slightly dated, but a good read anyway
Assessment 8/10
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