Simon Heffer and His Entitlement in Prologue: Can English be good?

The following text is a review of a book by Simon Heffer called Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write … and Why It Matters (2010). More specifically, I will be conducting a critical commentary on the Prologue of this book called Prologue: Can English be good? (pp. xv-xxx).

Contrary to what he would like you to believe, Heffer’s book is not ‘the Holy Grail of grammar’ as one review states, but it is in fact his idea of a grammar bible in which he acts as God whose word is the universal truth and who presumes that the readers will believe anything he is spewing. Not only are some of the rules of standard English that he is trying to set wrong, but even the prologue itself, which I will be primarily reviewing in this text, is filled with blatant contradictions and lies. Considering that this book is meant to be a tutorial on how to write ‘good’ English, the prologue makes a great job of leaving me more confused by Heffer’s idea of what good English is in his eyes. 

It’s blatantly obvious from the prologue itself that Heffer favours prescriptivism. He refers to books written by prescriptive grammarians such as Henry and Frank Fowler, in which he applauds them by saying that although ‘books produced by them and their school are rigidly prescriptive, … the prescriptions are based on logic and precedent rather than on prejudice’ (p. xxi). In fact, he admits that this book is prescriptive and although he recognizes the value of descriptivism, in order to speak good English, you need to follow prescriptions, more specifically his prescriptions. He continues to take a dig at Jean Aitchinson, with which he previously partially agreed on a point which states that in the 18th century not many people were educated and ‘when even completely uneducated people spoke the language, any attempt to regulate that language would inevitably fail’ (p. xix). This is quite ironic when in fact this is exactly what he is trying to do. 

In Heffer’s opinion the majority, including educated linguists, cannot speak correct English. He claims that we now have the sources we need to write correct English at our disposal and therefore there is no reason to not speak it. He states earlier in the text that ‘Good English, … is now something associated with a certain, usually over-privileged class’ but it is ‘not middle-class trait at all’ but in fact ‘trait of the far smaller educated class’ (p. xxiii).

He states that ‘Few Britons in recent decades will have learned the standard in schools’ (p. xvi). As a result, they cannot use English properly and for them to do that, they should read his book. It is quite ridiculous that he thinks of himself so highly, even higher than the entire education system. It wouldn’t surprise me if he thinks that his book can fix the system that is broken in his eyes. 

Heffer’s constant rejection of academia can be seen from the very first page of the prologue. Here is where is entitlement really stands out. He attempts to discredit linguists, people that have studied the English language for years and insinuates that they are in fact wrong in what they say and believe in. He declares that the rules of standard English are set by an ‘educated class’ and those who wish to be included in this elitist club must ‘subscribe to the rules’ (p. xv).

But who is this smaller educated class? To Heffer’s standard it is those who agree with his prescriptive bible. Arguably he is trying to create his own social class where those who agree with his rules are above everyone else because they follow the correct rules of English. They need to follow his rules of grammar and read the literature he recommends. If he says that something is wrong, we should just believe it because he said so. Even when he is wrong, he is right of course. He fails to consider that the majority would disagree with him on his points and that they would end up viewing him as an entitled snob who is trying to impose his own set of rules on the English language. He sounds like a bitter child who got kicked from a club with the popular kids, so he tries to create his own. Only his little club of elitists who want to feel special would agree with everything he is spewing, and the majority will continue ignoring his ridiculous crusade. Therefore, in his own words, as stated in the second paragraph of this review, any of his attempts to regulate language will inevitably fail.

Another example of his entitlement is when he refers to other writers. He states that ‘as a professional writer’ he believes that the ‘evidence’ of how he sees ‘English written by others’, even by some professional writers is not something he wants to be influenced by. That is because he believes that the evidence is often founded on choice of wrong words, wrong grammatical constructions and a lack of logic (p. xviii). It makes me wonder if Heffer subconsciously referred to his own book in this part of the text. He basically discredits the correctness of English used in any other book by saying that it’s not reliable and that his own book is the only true way to ensure that you are using the correct grammar. When we look at the choice of writers he referenced to support his dumbfounded arguments, it is in fact him that becomes unreliable.

Choice of George Orwell’s essay in Heffer’s prologue is especially interesting. Heffer puts Orwell on a high pedestal by stating that he is ‘perhaps the finest stylist in English in the 20th century’. This is a bold statement made by Heffer who discredits most writers. He quotes from Orwell’s essay called Politics and the English Language in order to make a point about how he believes that politics distorts language (p. xxii). He fails to mention that this essay includes opposing statements towards his own view of standard English. One of these statements in Orwell’s essay is about good writing and how it has nothing to do with the ‘setting up of a standard English which must never be departed from’ he also states that ‘it has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax’ and as long as the writer makes the meaning clear, these are not important (Orwell, 1946). This obviously disagrees with Heffer, who places so much importance on good grammar and rules that should be followed.

If you thought that Heffer’s views could not get any more entitled, you would be wrong. He quite obviously seems himself as superior above all academics and sees those who don’t conform to his idea of standard English as uneducated. What was even more shocking than this, was when he stated that ‘those who speak English precisely and well will also be labelled, and not always flatteringly’ (p. xxiv). He continues to say that that is the value society puts on upholding the highest standard of English. This is quite obviously a first-class snobbery where Heffer tries to make himself seem like a victim for his superior use of the standard English – like he is some kind of a genius who no one understands. This is of course ridiculous when we take into consideration the history of people that were looked down upon because they could not afford quality education and learn how to write and speak standard English like the elites could. Considering that Heffer has a PhD in History, he should realise the irony in this.

Throughout the prologue, Heffer frequently refers and quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is another one of his contradictions, since OED is known to be descriptive and not prescriptive. In fact, the very definition of standard English disagrees with him. The definition of standard English in OED states: ‘Applied to that variety of a spoken or written language of a country or other linguistic area which is generally considered the most correct and acceptable form’ (‘Standard’, n.d., para. 3e.). Therefore, according to the OED, standard English is not the language of the elites, the selected few who follow Heffer’s prescriptive bible. It is in fact a variety that is generally accepted to be the correct form. 

Heffer’s book is most certainly not considered following the most correct and acceptable form of standard English, although he would like you to think it is. He states that his book consists of ‘widely understood, and accepted, rules of grammar’ (p. xviii). Not only does Heffer defy most of the population, academia, and a writer he considers to be the ‘finest stylist’, but also the dictionary itself. It is quite remarkable how different he perceives himself to be in comparison to other people. Perhaps he meant to come across as the saviour of grammar but ends up being seen as an entitled snob who is way less important than he actually thinks. 

When referring to OED, he talks about the word ‘target’ as a verb. Because this word as a verb was introduced not too long ago, he is of course against this, because he is stuck in the 18th century. The reason he gives for being against the verb, is the fact that there are ‘more precise’ and ‘more accurate’ words that could be use instead. This is the prime example of how he wants to stop the development of language. Having more synonyms would most certainly enrich a language rather than having it stuck in the past with minimum vocabulary. Heffer’s attempt at dictating which words belong into the good English category and which belong into the bad English category is ridiculous, sad and laughable at the same time.

In conclusion, Heffer needs to understand that times change and language develops. If it was his way, we would all be using the same terms as people did in 18th century. But language constantly changes throughout centuries, and it will continue to change even after Heffer’s prescriptive literature. Nouns will develop into verbs and grammatical rules will alter and there is nothing Heffer can do other than complain about the fact and write another ridiculous book which the masses will most certainly not follow.

Heffer’s attitude towards the development of English reminds me of the attitude people had towards the development of modern art in the 19th century. People were so used to paintings looking realistic and with the invention of camera that all changed. People started experimenting with new colours and techniques and many people opposed it because it defied tradition. Eventually, most people that originally opposed modern art realised that times change and they cannot stop the progress. Heffer needs to realise that as well. With new inventions and merge of cultures language will experience changes in years to come and considering what I have read, he will not like most of the changes.


Heffer, S. (2010). Strictly English: The correct way to write and why it matters (pp. xv-xxx). London: Random House

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English language. London. Retrieved from:

Standard. (n.d.). In Oxford English dictionary. Retrieved from

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