Features June 1988
What’s the usage?
On Sir Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words & other books on English usage.
In the preface to a small but impressively lucid book on punctuation written in 1939 and entitled Mind the Stop, the author, an Englishman named G. V. Carey, reserved his last sentences for “a spasm of self-consciousness” in which, given the year of publication, he felt he ought to register the fact that “the mind of one who happens to have an eye for a comma is not necessarily incapable of comprehending larger issues or embracing wider interests.” Yet perhaps no disclaimer, however mild, needed to be entered. One of the reasons that nations go to war is so that men like G. V. Carey, in immaculately setting out the subtleties of the semi-colon, can carry on the work of civilization. Today, nearly fifty years later, when the art of careful punctuation threatens among the young to become as widespread as that of intaglio, a book such as Carey’s seems rather more significant. But then...
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