Plain English

HandbookI made myself curious with the last post and rummaged through my reference books to find that grammar book I mentioned. It is Plain English: A Complete Guide to Good English written by Anna Kathleen and J. Martyn Walsh of the Kansas Walshes. When looking online for a photo of the cover, I learned a few things about this skinny but valuable little book.

First, it was originally published in 1939 and that would have been the edition I used in school since it was my mother’s originally. When I moved on to college and graduate school I lost track of the book but was lucky to find a replacement copy in a used-book store, possibly in St. Louis. This is the one I still have on my bookshelf; it’s the third edition from 1951 and is in great shape except for some pencil notes in an unfamiliar hand (the notes are in cursive writing so they will become relics very shortly). I then went on to Amazon and discovered that Plain English at least made it into a ninth edition in the 1980s. What I also discovered was that there are barrels full of self-help grammar books that have been published since I was in college: some a complete, some are essential, some demystify, others divulge secrets, some are big books, some are plastic cards, but I wonder how many are actually better than my old Walsh handbook?

The Plain English Handbook is only 143 pages long and I see from the inside back cover that there are several workbooks available with a stated target of Junior High students and teachers. That’s interesting but I can assure you that English grammar you study when you are in Junior High is the same English grammar you use when you apply for Social Security. If anything, the rules get forgotten over the years or people just get lazy, but the rules are still the rules.

To demonstrate what a little gem this handbook is, I’ll just list out the major sections:

      1. Sentence Completeness
      2. Grammatical Usage
      3. The Sentence
      4. The Mechanics of Composition
      5. The Paragraph
      6. The Whole Composition
      7. Diction


A sub-section of the chapter on “The Sentence” introduces sentence diagramming and provides numerous examples of what now appears to be a lost art. Later in the chapter on “The Whole Composition” the handbook introduces several forms of writing and even has an extensive collection of sample letters, business and social. And finally the handbook goes beyond good writing and discusses good speaking and gives examples of good speeches.

That’s a lot for only 143 pages in a small format. I’m glad I still have my copy of the handbook over fifty years later … it’s right on the shelf over my desk, just to the left of my copies of Fowler and Follett.

One response

  1. I was rearranging my books today to make more space for new books, and I opened this little book. I have the 1951 edition, which belonged to my grandfather, a high school English teacher in Sterling, KS. As I flipped through the pages, I saw the diagramming parts, so I decided to take it to school. (I teach high school English myself now, and I have recently begun teaching my freshmen how to diagram sentences.) Then, I flipped to the author page and saw that the book was written by two Walshes from Wichita, KS. I did a search online and discovered that Kathleen Walsh passed away just a few days ago (Jan. 8). She was 105 years old. She never married or had children from what I can tell. And she retired from teaching in 1972. I so wish I could have met this lady. 🙂


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