Going beyond `thou shalt nots' of syntax

English Usage: A guide to first principles, by Walter Nash. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 167 pp. $24.95. A British scholar, Walter Nash, has a kind of master class in language structure, but one with some room for beginners.

Dr. Nash's ``English Usage'' stresses the structural options that grammar gives us, not the sometimes annoying no-nos. He calls for going beyond the ``thou shalt nots'' in language to bring forth a wholeness.

Nash, a Cantabrigian who teaches at the University of Nottingham, has called his book ``a thinking person's Strunk and White'' -- referring to ``The Elements of Style'' usage guide long popular on American campuses. He might value ``Elements'' as briefing. But to him, Strunk and White and stylists like H. W. Fowler amount to ``rule-givers,'' meting out bits of what's ``right.''

In ``English Usage,'' Nash's addition to a series of books on language, education, and society, the author urges an escape from ``the usage trap, the prescriptive snare that disables and confines the rule-giver as effectively as it intimidates the ruled.''

He doesn't just pick at pat rules -- nor does he say, with some linguists, that anything goes; he's after what he calls the ``constructive.'' He writes that ``if we try to understand the grammar of our language, so as to become sharply aware of the patterns of expression available to us when we speak or write, then we attain something of great constructive value.''

In a style that seasons some linguistics terms with the more down-to-earth, Nash speaks of ``distributive options,'' among others:

``Our writings carry messages more or less spontaneously loaded into the containers called `clause' and `sentence'; we make up, in effect, a syntactic train with vehicles of variable size. Alternatives in packaging are open to us. On the one hand, a great deal may be crammed into a single box; on the other, the same material may be contained in a series of units.''

As ``options of address'' he speaks of speech-style and book-style, noting possible gradations of the informal and familiar into the formal and conventional.

Nash gives thorough drill on sentence structure, but it's followable, and it's cleansing. It shows that parsing is not against poetry. For syntax, it's like ringing the changes, akin to bellringers showing the full range of their effects.

The author even shows how, by using punctuation like a baton, one can summon effects the way ``dynamic marks in music will affect phrasing in performance. A rhythm, a tempo, a pattern of intonation, even a way of looking at events, may be suggested.''

With uplift like that, along with his depth, Nash challenges one to use syntax for maximum effect in writing. He would doubtless say, with Gertrude Stein: ``Grammar is not against sailing.''

Yet, for instant help toward serviceable writing, or better, Will Strunk's jaunty commands and E. B. White's ``gentle reminders'' seem hard to match. ``Elements'' may in places be arbitrary, glib, or pass'e, but snobbish? It simply says to be exacting according to the need -- but says it quick, then leaves the task to the writer.

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