"The Reader Over Your Shoulder", by R Graves and A Hodge

This book, first published in 1943, remains my favourite guide to the writing of good English. The poet and novelist, Robert Graves, well-known for his autobiography of 1929, "Goodbye to All That", but even more so for the historical novels, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God", was an elegant and entertaining writer, and while this work cannot guarantee that you will become the same, it will give you a first-class guide to achieving clarity, which is an essential first step .

I have the second edition, which is somewhat abridged. Part I, containing the first 130 pages of the text, is divided into eight chapters, with the following titles:


The peculiar qualities of English


The present confusion of English prose


Where is good English to be found?


The use and abuse of official English


The principles of clear statement - I


The principles of clear statement - II


The principles of clear statement - III


The graces of prose

Chapters V to VII contain the core of the advice on clarity, encapsulated in 25 numbered principles. Chapter VIII consists of a further 16 principles, identified by capital letters, to guide the reader towards elegance of style. Graves and Hodge (G&H) start this chapter: "There is a Debateable Land between the region governed by our numbered principles, those concerned with the secure conveyance of information, and the region governed by our lettered principles, those concerned with its graceful conveyance."

Part II consists of a series of short sections dealing with extracts from well-known authors from the first half of the 20th century. The authors include H G Wells, G B Shaw, Bertrand Russell and J Maynard Keynes; the first edition included Ernest Hemingway also. Each section is in four parts, with titles "Text", "Examination", "Fair Copy" and "Comment". "Text" is the author's original passage; it is liberally marked with superscripts at points where G&H have identified an infelicitous use of language. Each superscript consists of a number or capital letter identifying the contravened principle and, if necessary, a lower case letter to distinguish multiple contraventions of the same one. "Examination" consists of a set of notes, each relating to one of the superscripts, naming the contravened principle, quoting the offending phrase and explaining the nature of the contravention. "Fair Copy" is a version by G&H of what they believe the original author intended to convey. "Comment" varies in content, ranging over their view of the author's circumstances or intentions; biographical information; the nature of the extract or the stylistic problem it presents; or the reason for some aspect of their Fair Copy.

"The Reader Over Your Shoulder" is no longer available new, but Amazon has second-hand copies. Most of the comments on the Amazon web page are from readers who share my high opinion of this book.

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