The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology by F. W. Westaway

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In a local charity shop I found a pocket-size blue book, printed in 1926, written by a man called Frederic William Westaway and entitled ‘The Writing of Clear English: A Book for Students of Science and Technology’. The book’s age and the subject, writing for science, immediately made me want it.

The story of my book

On 22 July 1931 my copy of the book was stamped with ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ in green ink. On this occasion it was bought by a C. B. Grimaldi. On the 24 October 1932, the book was again stamped with a ‘Marlborough College’, ‘Second hand book department’ stamp. This time in pink ink. Who it was sold to is unknown, but it went for 4/8, whatever that should mean.

The book was also owned by a D. S. Robinson, his or her name is scrawled in blue in on the inside cover.

I know little of the author Frederic William Westaway, but that he was, at one point in his life, one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Secondary Schools.

Grammar and style

Unlike many grammar books, Westaway doesn’t simply give a list of rules to follow. Rules do exist, and they are stated, but the wonder of the book is the use of examples.

The following is an example of careless stopping:

“Rule, Britannia; Britannia rules the waves”.

There should be a comma after the second Britannia, and the indicative should be replaced by another imperative.

[I believe the use of double quotation marks is of its time. My modern copy of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, first published 1929, states in the introduction that quotation marks have been changed from the original double to single for clarity.]

Many more of Westaway’s examples come from academic papers, journals such as Nature, and daringly even other grammar books.

Each chapter begins with a couple of quotes about either writing or grammar – a number of which are from Shakespeare.

How to be a better writer

Anyway, Westaway’s advice on mastering the art of writing?

He who desires to write correctly must train himself to review with a critical eye what other people have written. To understand exactly what the different words in a sentence mean, what functions they discharge, what relation they bear to one another, and what the sentence as a whole signifies, all these things are indispensable.

To which end my suggestion would be Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose.

A small rant about the label on the back of my shampoo

Naturally

Naturally healthy, gorgeous hair enhances a woman’s natural beauty. [Blah blah blah.] Magical paraben free formulas that gently transform your hair… naturally.

Yes, this example is from the label on a bottle of shampoo. Yes, I should avoid the shampoo for plain and simple animal testing reasons. There’s no bunny on the packaging. But why have ‘naturally’ as the heading, first word and last word of the paragraph. It’s like keyword cramming on a webpage. It’s completely unnecessary.

I’m busy washing my hair, and whilst normally I’d take this time to ponder life, I’m stuck thinking about this unnatural use of ‘naturally’. This marketing lark is seeping into my brain.

When I read the back of a shampoo bottle I expect some sort of ‘flowers and fruit make your hair beautiful’. But I think shampoo copy-writers could get a bit more creative. Every bottle is the same. They float between flowers, fruit and scientific nonsense.

It’s the science that annoys me the most. If there was some interesting factual information on the back I’d be intrigued. I am at heart a scientist. However, “has a unique microcirculation action” doesn’t count as interesting science. It’s not science. It’s not interesting. I actually find it frustrating because I’m not stupid, but I don’t understand how orange flower extract can have unique microcirculation action, and I don’t understand how momentarily improving the blood flow in some tiny vessels is going to make my hair more beautiful. Even if it’s true, is it really going to have an effect at a level that’s noticeable. I imagine the temperature of the water coming out of the shower will have more of an effect on my capillaries.

Rant over. Time to breathe.

Doodle a day - 17 April
An unnatural landscape.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

The Grump bought me this book as my birthday present last year. If you’re head over heels in love with writing, it’s a source of great joy, but for anyone who thinks they would be a better person if they only just read a wider and actually grasped what it was they were reading, then I think this book is also a star.

It’s filled with examples and extracts that land a punch. I scribbled down names of books I’m hungry for more of, and it comes with a suggested reading list in the back.

But for a book with such a general balance of different sorts of story, there was one whole chapter which seemed out-of-place. It was about this guy called Chekhov. Some strange Russian chap whose name floated meaninglessly through my brain.

Francine Prose whittled on about reading Chekhov, teaching Chekhov and falling more and more in love with Chekhov. She talked about reading Chekhov on the bus – and I think if you can read a book on a bus it’s got to be pretty absorbing.

So, when passing through Oxfam, this slender 99p book, A Russian Love Affair by Anton Chekhov, jumped out at me, I thought – why not. After all, Francine Prose knows how to write a good book and she thinks reading this 119 pages is worth my time.

Turns out she was right. I love Chekhov. He uses beautiful sentences like: ‘On the table was a watermelon’, in the middle of a scene of adultery. He’s on my list to Father Christmas.

As a side note. The book is part of a series of books by Penguin called ‘Great Loves’. Oxfam had, past tense, a few. One of these other slim volumes was by a name I recognised but not due to his literary prowess, but the notoriety of his antics in the bedroom. Of Mistresses, Tigeresses and Other Conquests by Giacomo Casanova is sadly only a few extracts from the longer 14 volumes of memoirs.

Another Christmas wish.