Book review: ‘Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation’

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

Language historian Ammon Shea says common usage trumps inflexible rules.


  • Nonfiction

    Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

    Ammon Shea

    Perigee Trade, 272 pages

If you’re prone to grammar anxiety when parsing “between you and me” or “between you and I,” consider yourself in excellent company. William Shakespeare opted for the latter in “The Merchant of Venice,” an unforgivable aggravation for grammar sticklers.

Shakespeare is one of many empowering examples in “Bad English,” a breezy reference you may want to keep within easy reach to rap the next guardian of English correctness who scolds you for mangling the King’s speech.

Language historian Ammon Shea is your man when you want to defend your right as a native English speaker to say “their” for “his,” “literally” for “virtually,” “unique” for “unusual,” “irregardless” for “regardless” and “that” for “which.”

Or to gloriously split an infinitive.

Shea’s refreshing arguments boil down to this: 1) Words can have multiple meanings. 2) Common usage trumps inflexible rules. 3) And the history of the English language is on the side of permissiveness.

“English is not dying,” Shea assures. “It is behaving exactly as it should, which is to say it is changing.”

Linguists have been saying these things for decades, in celebration of our mother tongue’s playfulness and inventiveness. Shea – who has written several books about language and dictionaries – gets the point across with insight and wit, but he doesn’t spare his well-aimed barbs at nitpickers who want to preserve the English language in a jar of formaldehyde.

The self-appointed protectorate of English reached a crescendo of outrage in 1961 over Webster’s Third including “ain’t” as a real word. And they ain’t letting up.

Shea’s enlightening primer exposes what sourpusses these pedants are in their quest to impose their linguistic preferences on the rest of us.

“I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful,” Shea writes. “One of the things that is most curious about people who hold themselves up as language purists is that they seem to spend considerably more time complaining about language than they do celebrating it.”

English has rules, of course, but they don’t operate as rigidly as some people would like. English usage is elastic, idiomatic and contextual. As a general proposition, human language is programmed to generate variations in pronunciation and grammar.

To declare one linguistic form proper and all the others aberrant is tantamount to saying a single species of rose is botanically correct and all the others are degenerate.

Linguistic bullying has an ugly history as a weapon used to stigmatize speakers of African-American Vernacular English, Appalachian English and Southern English.

Shea’s overview of grammar wars past and present includes several dozen case studies of disputed English usage, showing that many claims for grammatical correctness are a matter of personal preference or social prejudice.

Double negatives, redundant phrases, split infinitives and sentences ending with prepositions have been used to good effect by English speakers and writers for centuries.

Over the years, grammar defenders have bemoaned such words as “fun,” “pants,” “thanks,” “lunch,” “balding,” “belittle” and “dilapidated” as ungrammatical or low-class. Their objections seem comical today and ought to give pause to anyone making absolute claims about proper English.

An ongoing kerfuffle involves “unique .” Purists insist something either is or isn’t, but can’t be more, less, somewhat or very unique.

Yet in the past two centuries, Charlotte Brontë, Walter Scott and Ezra Pound found “more unique” perfectly serviceable. Horace Mann, in 1772, opted for “uniquest.”

On that score, “unique” is hardly unique. Shea notes plenty of other absolute adjectives that English speakers like to modify for emphasis or for stylistic effect. Common examples include: half full, perfectly straight, very pregnant, quite correct, more dead than alive.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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