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Crystal clear

Andrew Steeds

I can’t really see how people don’t know of him or haven’t read any of his many publications, if only because the guy is so prolific and so clearly the go-to expert for any subject relating to language – but whenever I mention his name in courses or seminars there are always a surprising number of people who have never heard of him. So, in the interest of bringing his wisdom and wit to the widest possible audience, I thought I should devote this blog to David Crystal, to my mind the most interesting writer to read on language.

I had the good fortune to work with David, all too briefly, a long time ago, just before he published
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (the word was that he’d offered that book first to the publishing company I was working in at the time, which had turned it down – a bit of a Beatles–Decca moment). [1] My publishing company was reissuing Databank, a series he had co-written for what were then called ‘reluctant readers’. He gave the most accomplished and delicate put-down to the series’ designer, who had made the mistake of claiming a particular typeface had been ‘proven to be the most readable typeface’, without any awareness (I should have told her … ) of David’s expertise in this area: his quizzing of her and his requests for the source of her information were wonderful to witness. Typical of the man, he was genuinely prepared to accept that he hadn’t come across research that she might be privy to and was modest in his presentation of his case against hers.

The publishing world is full of prima donnas, on both sides of the desk. David Crystal was completely not one of them: rather, he was approachable, democratic, respectful of others’ contributions. And I’ve not come across any other writer since who has his ability to write effortlessly at so many different levels. Few bow to him in his academic writing, but even fewer academics have anything like his knack of writing intelligently and engagingly for public consumption: he covers the waterfront and does so without any sense of talking down. (When I first set up Simply Put, many years after last seeing him, he gave me some fantastic advice and some very useful pointers in terms of people to consult and ideas to consider.)

But the best thing about David Crystal’s writing is that it talks such fantastic sense. Actually, no, come to think of it, that’s not necessarily the best thing: the other best thing (that’s one of those linguistically impossible constructions that he would sanction, just in case you’re wondering) is that it’s fun – partly because it’s shot through with his warmth, humanity and easy erudition. If anyone’s ever wondered, for example, whether Lynn Truss’s E
ats, Shoots and Leaves was really the last word on punctuation and grammar, they should read David Crystal’s The Fight for English, which is a brilliant riposte to prescriptive doom-mongerering.

Not content with writing more books in a year than most writers manage in a lifetime, David also has a blog, which I warmly recommend to you: A word of warning, though: it’s easy to lose yourself for hours at a time going through the back entries. (There was a great one last month, which I initially thought had to be an April’s Fool, on how to construct alien languages.) Most of the blogs are in response to questions raised by correspondents, and the exchange of information goes on in the postings, with David frequently returning to the debate and commenting on comments.

A pity the Plain English Campaign has nabbed the phrase Crystal Mark Award. How much more kudos it might actually have if it were applied to writing that managed to get within spitting range of the clarity of David Crystal’s!

[1] There’s a fascinating account of the experience of compiling this series in his chapter, ‘Closer Encounters: from theory to practice’ in David Crystal, Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1984).