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Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English

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Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English is just that – a little book of bad English. In this slim volume, James Cochrane covers roughly two hundred words, phrases, and expressions that are frequently misused, mispronounced, or misspelled. In many cases he gives real-world examples from people who really should know better: writers, journalists, broadcasters, and other public figures.

Cochrane explains his aims in writing the book in his foreword printed on the front-flap: "I have not written it with the intention of being purist in the sense of proposing that change nearly always means debasement, nor have I been concerned with the 'educated' or 'uneducated' uses of language in the traditional sense, both of which have their strengths and weaknesses. It is more concerned with the particular form of debasement we have now, which derives at least in part from what might be called the 'half-educated' use of language."

The book is arranged alphabetically, with a couple of paragraphs describing each entry and the common error attached to it. Perhaps some of the most useful sections are those highlighting frequently confused words. Cochrane tells us how to choose the correct term from pairs such as comprised and composed, discrete and discreet, flout and flaunt, who and whom, and even some you probably thought you understood like envy and jealousy.

He is also intent on stamping out the redundancy in expressions like free gift, ongoing situation, and at this moment in time. Plurals, too, are a matter of concern for Cochrane. He points out that bacterium is the singular form of bacteria, criterion of criteria, stratum of strata, and phenomenon of phenomena. But perhaps he takes it a little too far when he argues that we should use the term graffito when referring to a single instance of graffiti.

Throughout, Cochrane's style is light and readable. At times he seems somewhat authoritarian and prescriptive, but on the whole he hits the right balance. Here are his comments under the heading "irregardless":

This clownish word is so well disguised as a sensible one that it quite often slips by unnoticed, used in place of regardless - as in 'irregardless of the consequences' - whereas what it means literally is 'not regardless'. It is presumably a conflation of regardless and irrespective and is sometimes used in jest, sometimes in ignorance.
In a similar vein, a spokesman for local government chief executives recently stated that the government was 'paying scant disregard' to some problem or other.

Many clichιs and other expressions are identified that display a certain level of ignorance in the language, including these errors: fine toothcomb (fine-toothed comb), on tender-hooks (on tenter-hooks), in the throws of (in the throes of), hair-brained (hare-brained), and straight-laced (strait-laced).

There is much to be gained from reading this book. The author sums up its usefulness well when he explains that having read it, readers are likely to "be surprised to find that much of what they thought was 'Bad' English is in fact perfectly good, and that what they have learned to think of as 'Good' English is sometimes ignorant, dishonest or plain stupid".

The introduction to Between You and I is written by senior BBC television and radio journalist John Humphrys. "There are so many threats to the survival of good, plain English," he says, "that it is not easy to be optimistic... Happily there are people like James Cochrane still prepared to fight the good fight... Mr Cochrane acknowledges that English is a living language and must change. But it must also be protected... There is infinite scope for an infinite number of future editions."

James Cochrane was educated at the University of Cambridge, and joined Penguin Books as an editor in 1961. Since then he has published a number of other works.

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