Mind the Gaffe, by RL Trask. Penguin, 2002. $24.95.

Mind the Gap! The book title is intended to remind all who have waited on curved London Underground railway platforms of the risk a careless step poses. The risks Dr Trask warns of are those which can label the writer as illiterate, ignorant of the nuances of English usage, or at least possessed of cloth ears. In offering this review to New Zealand Skeptic I do not imply that readers are particularly in need of the author’s advice; rather, his comments have a distinctly skeptical slant, which should be music to skeptical ears (see entry: cliches). Consider the following entries in his alphabetical list.

  • Alternative

“…has acquired a new sense of ‘non-standard’ …A good example is alternative medicine…a collection of practices which are neither underpinned by scientific understanding nor validated by careful testing.”

  • Militant

“When Richard Dawkins says he has no use for religion he is labelled a ‘militant atheist’, but the earnest people who call at awkward hours to talk about the Bible are never called ‘militant Christians’.”

  • Morphic

“A meaningless word with no existence outside pseudo-scientific drivel.” (Take that, Sheldrake!)

  • Natural

“Anyone who tells you that natural things are good by definition should be invited to spend a year in a remote third-world village with no running water, no sewers, no electricity and no medical treatment, but plenty of vermin and diseases.”

  • New Age

“Bookshops today are obliged to devote a depressingly large amount of shelf-space to books churned out by crackpots and charlatans… This coy label is overly respectful, in that it suggests the books have some detectable content.”

  • Quantum

“…every third charlatan finds that he can sell books by wrapping his content-free dross in a warm, fuzzy, pseudo-mystical cloud of blather featuring the word quantum very prominently. …seems to sell piles of books which would have served us better by remaining as trees”.

  • Uncertainty principle

“…brandished constantly by New Age charlatans… These frauds want their readers to believe that Heisenberg’s great achievement somehow licenses and justifies whatever brand of content-free mumbo-jumbo they happen to be peddling.”

There are more examples; those interested in modern philosophy should see the entries for feminism, hermeneutic, situated knowledge and theory.

The author was born and educated in the US, but now teaches linguistics at Sussex University in the UK. He is thus an expert guide in that area where, unfortunately, “two peoples are divided by a common language”.

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