by N E Renton (published by
Third Edition, 2004)
This practical book is an essential reference tool for managers, writers, editors, publishers, lawyers, typists, teachers and students. An important but often neglected aspect of writing - punctuation - is explained in great detail in this work, which also deals with spelling, grammar, "plain English" and word usage.
The compendium can also serve as a house style manual for Australian business and other organisations desiring to lift their standards.
This is a modern book that, unlike some other guides, deliberately sets out to help writers by being prescriptive rather than descriptive.
It discusses numerous examples of common errors, inconsistencies, jargon and gobbledegook found in actual business communications. It gives simple explanations of all significant grammatical concepts and includes a list of commonly misused words and phrases.
Sir Arvi Parbo provided the Foreword.
The author is himself a very experienced writer, with more than 50 books and over 500 articles to his credit.
This is a work for the personal libraries of all amateur and professional writers. It will appeal equally to lovers of words, to the business community and to students of English whether as a first or second language.
The book is a source of reference whenever there is doubt as to the correct usage in a particular case. It can also be used as a training manual and as an interesting fount for browsing in at random.
304 pages 9781740310802 RRP $A29.95
BOOK REVIEW by Jeffrey Barnes, La Trobe University, in the Law Institute Journal, June 2004
At a time when standards of writing seem to be generally declining, it is heartening that high quality publications on good writing are becoming commonplace. Nick Renton's latest book is the revised edition of his Good Writing Guide, originally published as Elements of Style and Good Writing.
The previous edition comprised no fewer than 18 chapters, 15 appendices, a tailpiece and two indices. The layout of the 3rd edition has been streamlined by dividing the work into four parts: the craft of writing; grammar and style; punctuation; and tools of the trade. The last-mentioned section covers house style manuals, automatic spellcheckers, editing and indexing. The book is attractively presented and easy to navigate.
The author's object is to help writers lift the standard of their work. The book's own standards are high. Its direct, no-nonsense approach, copious illustrations of good and bad writing, and clear explanations of the rules of the English language give the work great utility. I also found it to be balanced in its advice. For instance, it makes it clear that some rules may need abandoning, such as the hoary one about never splitting an infinitive. And its advice to aim for shorter rather than longer paragraphs is sound and consistent with modern trends.
Although the book is targeted at the business world, it would be a handy addition to the reference works of the legal practitioner. It will also appeal to the word lover. I found it to be particularly interesting in such diverse matters as Americanisms, Internet considerations, uses of the possessive case, indexing and spotting tautologies. The book is enlivened with witty quotations throughout.
One query I have arises from the sub-title's reference to plain English. The book is not a doctrinaire work of plain English in the manner of plain English works written for the legal profession. It focuses more on the traditional approach to good writing - instilling an appreciation of underlying grammatical rules, the need for internal consistency in matters of style, and so on. Tradition is not always worth preserving though. In a rare lapse, the book endorses shall for imposing obligations, whereas plain English bibles strongly prefer the use of must for this purpose. Notwithstanding these and other quibbles, the work succeeds admirably as a compendium of good English writing.
BOOK REVIEW by Major Keary in PC Update, the magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group, November 2004
"The nice thing about standards is there are so many to choose from" [anonymous].
The most common use of desktop and workstation computers is the creation of documents, which can range from large manuscripts to two-line emails. Many users rely on software to check spelling and grammar, style, and insert hyphenation breaks. Such systems are no substitute for human proof reading, which requires at the very least a reliable reference that is relevant to the user's environment. However, there is no absolute standard; style manuals and guides written for one country may be at odds with usages in another country, and house styles vary even within the same industry or profession.
So where does one turn for authority? One solution is to settle on a particular reference or guide and stick to its prescriptions and advice. Another solution is the eclectic path: develop one's own house style based on a selection of rules and advice from multiple sources. The main thing is to be consistent, especially within the same document.
Nick Renton is a well established - Australian - author whose work includes titles on guides to meetings, managing voluntary organisations, understanding various aspects of taxation and investment, and good writing.
His Compendium of Good Writing is a compendium, which is defined by Oxford as "A work presenting in brief the essential points of a subject; a digest, an epitome". It is comprehensive, but succinct; it avoids unnecessary technical or theoretical discussions and focuses on practical usage illustrated by examples; and it contains useful information in tabular format for ready reference. Internet usage is discussed, and useful links are listed in an appendix.
It was a pleasant surprise to find an example of hyphenation pitfalls that came from my own writing on the subject (and would have been even more pleased had the source been acknowledged). I don't subscribe to all of the author's prescriptions, but anyone who wants a modern guide to writing Australian English will be on safe ground using the Compendium as a style manual and general desktop reference that is easy to keep within hands reach.
For those who prefer to be eclectic, the Compendium is a useful addition to their respective libraries of dictionaries, grammars, and style guides. Very good value.
BOOK REVIEW by Helen Bethune Moore in the Newsletter of the Society of Editors (Victoria), August 2005
Nick Renton's Compendium of Good Writing: A plain English guide to plain English is in its third edition, which stands as testament to the value of its content. It has also undergone its third name change. First published as Elements of Style and Good Writing in 1990, it became Good Writing Guide in 1994. The latest incarnation of the title is probably its most descriptive as well as its most impressive.
Not having seen the former editions, I can't compare them with the current one, but this book is logically laid out in four parts - The craft of writing; Grammar and style; Punctuation; and Tools of the trade.
Part 1 covers the art of communication, aspects of style, internal consistency, Americanisms, neologisms, business correspondence, Internet considerations, and some troublesome concepts. One troublesome concept that is explained, to my delight, is the removal of cousins, something that has always confounded me. I did have to wonder though what would cause me to look up "cousins" in the index of a book on good writing. The index entry is there, but I found the section on "The removal of cousins" only because I was perusing the book. It is an example of the breadth of the Compendium's content.
Parts 2 and 3 are pretty much what one would expect of sections on grammar, style and punctuation. No real surprises there, but it's always good to be able to call on a definitive and prescriptive authority. Plenty of examples of correct and incorrect usage are supplied.
Part 4, Tools of the trade, covers house style manuals, automatic spellcheckers, editing and proofreading, indexing and solutions to proofreading exercises, all in 21 pages, which is disproportionately few compared to the rest of the book. But as this is a book about good writing, not good editing, this is acceptable.
I found the appendixes to be one of the more useful aspects of this book. To really appreciate them, one must like lists of things and, I confess, I do. There are orderly lists of commonly misused words, parts of speech and syntax, the subjunctive mood, tautologies, units of measurement (with a wonderful epigram preceding it - All metric signs next 50 miles), Roman numerals, common Latin phrases and useful Internet links. It's risky providing links because of the ephemeral nature of the Internet, although many of the URLs in this list I use myself, and have for some time. Those that I haven't used look tempting, and had I the time, it would be very interesting to investigate them all.
Nick Renton's book claims to be "an effective communication tool for business writers, managers, teachers, other professionals and word lovers". And that about sums it up. It's not groundbreaking, but it's the sort of book that is handy to have on the shelf, particularly when one is having a blond moment.
BOOK REVIEW by Peter Carter in the Newsletter of the Society of Editors (South Australia), July-August 2005
Nick Renton is one of those people who has written more books than most of us have written book reviews: no fewer than 34 titles are listed in this book. Renton is described as "a consulting actuary, commercial arbitrator, company director and writer". Most of his books are on business and financial topics.
In Compendium of Good Writing Renton has set out to provide, as the subtitle suggests, "A plain English guide to plain English", aimed at people in business and voluntary organisations who need to write letters, reports, and the like.
Renton makes his aims clear in the first chapter: "Introduction - the art of communication". As he points out, we communicate not just to convey information, but impressions as well. Matters of style, internal consistency, spelling, use or misuse of jargon, and the like all matter. Above all, Renton is interested in clear, plain language, and he has harsh words for much of Australia's legislation. Other chapters in the first part look at Americanisms, new terms, the Internet, and how these relate to business correspondence.
The second section, with six chapters, deals with grammar: concord, auxiliary verbs, plurals, numbers, and commonly misused expressions. Renton examines the common errors, explains why they are wrong, and supplies corrected versions. Throughout the book, he clearly distinguishes incorrect and correct versions of sentences, by marking with ticks and crosses.
Part III is devoted to punctuation, including hyphens, quotation marks and the use of capital letters. The apostrophe has a chapter to itself.
The final section is a brief look at the editing process , with discussion of house style manuals, spellcheckers and so on, with a proofreading exercise with answers. There are eight appendices, together with a bibliography and index.
Compendium of Good Writing is not a book for editors, although those starting out may find it valuable. It does not cover many topics that are dealt with by Janet MacKenzie, for example, but what it does contain will be useful to people who find themselves in positions where they need to write clearly and concisely. Renton has followed his own advice: the book is one "for the rest of us". It deserves to be widely read and followed.
Questions and Answers about Style and Good Writing are now being featured on this site. Users are accordingly invited to send Nick Renton pertinent questions dealing with matters not currently analysed in his book. (The comprehensive index will help readers to locate the topics already covered.)
It should, however, be borne in mind that the author is a conservative writer and a pedant who has strong views on some issues. As indicated above, his book tends to be prescriptive rather than descriptive and he does not always agree with other writers in this important area.
PART I: THE CRAFT OF WRITING
1 INTRODUCTION - THE ART OF COMMUNICATION
PART II: GRAMMAR AND STYLE
PART III: PUNCTUATION
15 THE ROLE OF PUNCTUATION
PART IV: TOOLS OF THE TRADE
21 TOWARDS A HOUSE STYLE MANUAL
A COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS
A compendium is a comprehensive but brief account of a particular subject or field of knowledge, especially in the form of a book.
The word comes from the Latin compendere, to weigh together.
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List of Nick Renton's books in print
Common Latin Phrases
Dictionary of Stock Exchange and Investment Terms
Enjoy your English! a treasure-house for lovers of words
Renton's Metaphors an annotated dictionary of metaphors
Public Relations: a Matter of Spin
Common Grammar Errors
Style Manuals - Masters or Servants?
Australia needs Tax Reform
Home Page of Nick Renton AM