In the early 1980s, my summer job was helping out at the local newsagent’s in my home town, a small seaside resort in Northern Ireland. Apart from dusty tourist guides and Old Moore’s Almanack, there weren’t many books for sale. Tidying the shelves one day, however, I came across a slim volume with an important-sounding title. Something told me that The Spoken Word: A BBC Guide was the book I had been wanting for a long time, without realizing it. I handed over £2 of my hard-earned wages, and took it with me when I went back to university that autumn.
Ever since then, books about words have piled up on my desk, including Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a Roget’s Thesaurus and the 1987 ‘Compact Edition’ (still huge) of the Oxford English Dictionary which came with its own magnifying-glass. But over the years Robert Burchfield’s little book – you might even call it a booklet – is the one that I have turned to most often. It helped me to learn how to write.
The Spoken Word, published in 1981, was produced in response to a wave of complaints to the British Broadcasting Corporation about falling standards in spoken English. A new era of broadcasting had begun in the 1970s, as the BBC changed from being the Reithian home of ‘received pronunciation’ to something broader, permitting more regional accents and informal language. Many people felt that the move towards linguistic diversity had gone too far, resulting in what the critic Anne Karpf so eloquently described in 1980 as ‘English as she is murdered on radio’.
The BBC felt that its broadcasters needed help in deciding what was acceptable and what was not, and commissioned a brief, no-nonsense guide from Dr Robert Burchfield. There was probably no one who knew the English language better, or how it had changed in recent times. Burchfield was the editor of the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, the great t
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