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Mind the Gaffe

This book’s subtitle is The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English. Its author is Larry Trask, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex. If those two sentences make you think of some dry, academic treatise, you could not be more wrong.

The cover of Mind the Gaffe

Professor Trask says he wrote his book after marking exam papers; he was so riled by the mistakes he found that he started to collect the most common ones. Many have been down the same path, but few have ended up publishing a book full of corrections, particularly one so simultaneously accessible and acerbic as this. Most of what he writes is straightforward good sense, expressed in pithy but plain English. But to judge by some entries, his marking pen must more than once have stabbed a hole in the page:

Empowerment A vogue word of somewhat fuzzy meaning, almost entirely confined to the trendier kinds of social commentary.

Feminism Sadly, the name has been appropriated by an array of irresponsible and self-serving people who promote every kind of ignorant and vicious but apparently career-advancing drivel in the name of feminism. So much sludge now appears in print ... that real feminism is in some danger of being submerged.

Hermeneutic It has become a favourite of post-modernist writers, who cannot resist slipping it into every second page. Like most post-modernist habits, this is not one you should imitate. If you mean ‘interpretive’, then write interpretive, and forget about this silly word.

Prior to This ghastly thing has recently become almost a disease. .. You should make every effort to avoid this Latinate monstrosity in favour of plain old English before.

He is also dismissive of aforementioned: “sounds ridiculous outside legal language”; communicate: “often pretentious”; feedback: “now almost devoid of meaning”; input: “unquestionably vastly overused and lacking in explicitness”, synergy: “often an empty and foolish term”, and so on. It must be hard surviving one of his tutorials unscathed.

The title, by the way, is a pun on a London Underground warning to passengers at stations where the track curves steeply and gaps appear between platform and train. It is announced in a stentorian monotone over the station PA system: Mind the Gap.

[Trask, R L, Mind the Gaffe, published by Penguin Books on 30 August 2001; pp302; publisher’s price £12.99; ISBN 0-14-029237-3]

Page created 15 Sep. 2001

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Last modified: 15 September 2001.