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The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

3.66  ·  Rating Details ·  235 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
The English language is a battlefield. Since the age of Shakespeare, arguments over correct usage have been bitter, and have always really been about contesting values—morality, politics, and class. The Language Wars examines the present state of the conflict, its history, and its future. Above all, it uses the past as a way of illuminating the present. Moving chronologica ...more
Hardcover, 408 pages
Published October 25th 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published February 1st 2011)
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Nikki In a way. It's about the history of the English language.

Community Reviews

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Apr 19, 2016 Cecily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language-related
An interesting and accessible exploration of the English language and aspects of usage that people get worked up about. Hitchings approaches the subject from a broad-minded, descriptivist angle (as opposed to traditionalist/prescriptivist) and uses a variety of historical and amusing points to challenge various myths. Too many grammars ignore context in their desire to give rules that always apply.

Debunking Zombie "Rules"

In particular, he wants to debunk restrictive and inaccurate "rules" and em
Mary Ronan Drew
Aug 02, 2014 Mary Ronan Drew rated it liked it
Ah the joys of disparaging those who disagree with us about English usage. They seem never to get old. The author of this "History of Proper English," Henry Hitchings, while he tells us repeatedly that he does not take a stand, he's just explaining to us what has happened over the years, is actually quite opinionated. In his opinion there are no valid standards, all standards are artificial (he speaks repeatedly of "bogus" rules), and no one has a right to impose his "standards" on the rest of ...more
I love books about language (check out my bookshelves). Imaginary languages? Weirdly specific glossaries? Talking bonobos? Delightful foreign idioms? The latest neurolinguistic breakthrough? Dubious folk etymologies? Yet another book about controversies in English usage? Add it to the bedside pile.

So you'd think I would have enjoyed this perfectly decent book by Henry Hitchings, who appears to be a perfectly decent fellow. He has already written two perfectly decent books about the English langu
Jan 28, 2012 Duff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed both the fine writing and the challenges that come with thinking about the grammar of our own language...often about points that I had not really thought about since "grammar" school. And, I admit honestly, that much of what I use in daily speech/writing is completely inbred and I could not explain why I use various parts of speech. A bit wonky and a good read, if you are interested in the English language and how we got to the current usage. Much surprised at how many of the ...more
Dec 31, 2014 Nikki rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, history
In theory, this is a subject I’m really fascinated by. The whole idea of ‘proper English’, all the classism and imperialism and prejudice caught up in it, and the way people’s attitudes to language have developed. However, turns out that either the minutiae of who wrote which grammar/dictionary/book about etiquette and when isn’t that interesting, or Henry Hitchings has a really boring prose style. Or, well, both of those things. I felt like there were a lot of facts, but not much analysis to go ...more
Jun 06, 2012 Smellsofbikes rated it it was amazing
Intense, philosophic history of battles over what constitutes proper english: grammar, spelling, dialect, and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) racism, sexism, and power struggles embedded in language. It's packed with amazing little lines: a language is a dialect with an army, most arguments about correct language are actually arguments about power, stuff like that. It's full of historical oddities: when the US was forming, not much more than half the people in the area spoke English; in ...more
Apr 26, 2012 Renee rated it it was amazing
Anyone who knows me knows I love to read about language, English or otherwise, so I really enjoyed this book. The thing I liked most about it is the fact that it puts the grammar Nazis where they belong--in the dusty static they are trying to create. I love that the book is about the fact that even at its very beginnings people were complaining about usage and the creep of foreign words...and it hasn't changed. Language is a living thing and while it is important to understand "proper" usage, ...more
Ben Doeh
A wonderful overview of the debates that have shaped our language.

Hitchings matches an Oxford scholar's erudition with a journalist's facility with words. He explains in depth the significant historical discussions about how our language is and should be; he reveals the social and political implications of proscribing and unifying language, and equally the problem of trying to maintain our differences in language usage.
Andrea Marley
Jul 25, 2012 Andrea Marley rated it it was ok
This book done make an interesting topic un-interesting.

I have 3 favorite things about this book.
One: The realization that the English language is not very old in relative terms.
Two: In the age of Chaucer we would read "We do say its time to go now" roughly like "Way doe sah its teem to gaw noo".
Three: Grammar snobbery!

I look forward to reading jazzier versions on the subject.
Dec 08, 2016 Ilona rated it really liked it
I have been reading this book on and off four 4+ years (because I'm not used to not having a time limit on ownership of a book), and I'm so glad I finally finished it. My mind feels like it's been opened wide, and I encourage anyone who writes, reads, or engages with English (which is probably everyone reading this) to pick it up.
Al Bità
Aug 08, 2015 Al Bità rated it liked it
The sub-title of this book is “A History of Proper English” — but anyone who reads it to find out what “proper English” is all about will be sadly disappointed. The author more or less presents his work chronologically in 28 chapters (although he feels free to move temporally backwards and forwards as required within the basic chronological flow) and covers many varied and often delicious titbits along the way, but the message is always the same: there is no such thing as “proper English”: there ...more
Joe Huggins
Feb 21, 2011 Joe Huggins marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
From World Wide Words (
Book Review: The Language Wars
Henry Hitchings's previous works include a biography of the man he
wrote his PhD thesis on, Dr Samuel Johnson. Here he turns to the
history of disputes about what constitutes good English. To call it
warfare is to seriously overstate matters - nobody has ever manned
a barricade in defence of the right to split an infinitive - but
publishers do l
Claire Davidson
Jan 04, 2013 Claire Davidson rated it really liked it
In Language Wars, Hitchings provides many great insights about the development of standardized English, and his witty remarks and playful language make the book very enjoyable to read. This is the first book I've read about linguistics that I considered laugh-out-loud funny.

Hitchings covers a lot of territory over only 336 pages, and the flow of his narrative is logical and easy to follow. Sometimes, I felt as though he was reading my mind when the chapters began discussing things I was wonderin
Josh Hamacher
Feb 13, 2012 Josh Hamacher rated it it was ok
I was really looking forward to reading this book and I was excited when I received it as a Christmas present. But unfortunately I just couldn't make myself actually like it. Finishing it turned into a month-long slog.

I think my problem with the book was partly one of expectations. "A History of Proper English", to my mind, should have chapters dealing with the placement of the comma, the use of the hyphen, etc. It would be mostly a historical work with a little bit of textbook thrown in.

To be f
Oct 21, 2012 Andree rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
This was a hard one to rate. It was well-written, definitely. It's probably 3.5 stars. I enjoyed it overall. Some parts were qutie good, some parts were dull and didn't really hold my interest. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting, somehow, but I'm glad I read it. I tend to be interested in discussions of language, but I think I tend to like the details about individual words and trends more than the various philosophical theories about it. Certain things will stick with me.

For example, the co
Norman Crane
Apr 13, 2014 Norman Crane rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Although some of the reviews I read mentioned that the middle chapters were tedious, I didn't find that to be the case at all. Hitchings may go off argument but he never goes off topic, and The Language Wars isn't just a history of the fight for "proper English". It's also a personal essay in which Hitchings shares his opinions about our bastard tongue and comes down on the side of the language liberals rather than the conservatives. That amounts ...more
Wesley  Gerrard
About to embark, in September, on a Translation degree, I thought it a good idea to brush up on my rather lamentable English skills and thoroughly cast myself into the depths of this book. It is a worthy and interesting read in which the history of our language is explored. What gave rise to the way we speak in today's world and what, indeed, will tomorrow's English be? The author introduces a multitude of well-spun anecdotes from the most famous of our English language writers in addition to ...more
Jan 08, 2016 Jason rated it liked it
Somewhat mistitled, this book contains very little war or conflict at all. While the war in the book's name refers the very civil disagreement between grammatical prescriptivists (truthfully proscriptivists) who lament disintegrating standards in 'correct' English usage and the more liberal descriptivists who study language from a more objective standpoint, measuring standard and nonstandard forms without passing judgment. Yet the book itself is more of a history of prescriptivist sticklers ...more
Feb 18, 2013 Patrick rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I like English. I read style guides. I took a class in college called History of the English Language. I run a training session on Effective Business Writing. I vomit every time I see someone use quotation marks to convey emphasis. I once punched a 5th grader in the neck for using "their" instead of "they're".

This book was too much English for me.

It was full of interesting facts about the history of the language, and more so the history of people complaining about the way other people use the la
Mr. Brammer
Jul 21, 2013 Mr. Brammer rated it really liked it
_The Language Wars_ is a wide-ranging discussion of perceptions of English usage. Hitchings strenuously attempts to mediate between the prescriptivist and descriptivist camps, implying that those who take strong positions are usually proven wrong by history.

I especially appreciate his explanations of how usage "rules" were developed and defended by the high priests of grammar. What we think of as iron-clad grammar rules can often prove a barrier to clarity and understanding;"correct" pronoun an
Christopher Fox
Dec 16, 2014 Christopher Fox rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent book. It's not a fast or easy read simply because there's so much here to digest...and it's all good. The breadth and scope of Hitchings's research is breathtaking and informs a comprehensive evaluation of the struggles throughout its history that the English language has undergone as innumerable people attempt to codify and standardize its use. There can be few if any corners of this ongoing fight that he doesn't cover, not only with erudition and rich diction but ...more
Fulani Fulani
Dec 09, 2012 Fulani Fulani rated it it was amazing
Excellent. It's a history of the often bitter debates about 'proper' English, starting from the point at which the language as we now know it came into existence - perhaps more recently that we might imagine - and reflecting on its use in England, the US, and indeed many other countries and regions where the language is spoken. It's written with humour and verve, including many rather amusing examples and a number of details that even those who think they know the language well will find fresh ...more
Steve Whiting
Feb 17, 2016 Steve Whiting rated it really liked it
A well-researched and in-depth look at the evolution (historic and current) of the English language, admirably pragmatic about the not-really-rules of grammar and how fluid and malleable the language is.

I did find that a couple of chapters, where Hitchings went into depth on the development of spelling in history, were a bit turgid - over-long and every time he emerged into the present day he would almost immediately plunge back several hundred years into the past.

Once past that section, the boo
Dec 01, 2011 A. rated it liked it
This is a good book. I like to end my sentences with a preposition, so I now feel empowered to know that this was just one guy's idea of proper English. My one minor, but important complaint about the book is the size of the font. I mean, do I actually have to put on reading glasses to get through the book? A small detail, but one that irked me throughout the book. Were they trying to save paper by using a tiny type?

Anyway, interesting stuff. From now on I'm paying no attention to rules on gram
Shimon de Valencia
Jul 22, 2012 Shimon de Valencia rated it really liked it
This might not be as slick as 'The story of English'. It does however build well constructed arguments with evidence to make even the most ardent Anglophile question their assumptions as to what makes 'good' Englsh. Never again shall i question the use of the hanging preposition, nor adhere to the southern 'im' prefix as being 'better' than the goodd old northern 'un'. (Let us resurrect 'unpossible' in the lexicon of pur langusge once more) A joy to read, and definately makes the reader think ...more
Jul 06, 2012 Phil rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is what I might call a popular-scholarly book (if that is not improper English!) In other words, it is written for the general reader, but relates a great deal of information from specialists in the subject (as shown by the 27 pages of notes and 26 page Bibliography). It is not a "light" read, but is not "heavy" either - it just requires some concentration and effort to follow all that is being said. It is packed full of history, theory, observation, reflection and insight, and made me ...more
Jun 06, 2011 Celeste rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you're a grammar geek, language nerd, or other similarly-describable entity, you will love this book. Hilariously written in a way that only the British can truly pull off. I hesitate to reveal the depth of my nerdness, but this book literally had me laughing out loud in bed. Beyond that, though, it's definitely a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of the English language. It really gives you a whole new perspective on "rules" of grammar, and has made me a lot less apt to ...more
Dec 09, 2015 Erin rated it liked it
Shelves: language, history
For someone who claims to be a descriptivist, he's awfully opinionated.

This is mostly a very interesting book, though slow in spots and some of his tangents reveal more about his own biases than anything else. But this book definitely has it's charms. It has lots of fascinating anecdotes, and is well-written, with a fair amount of snark. I was expecting more linguistics, but that didn't come in until the end. It's primarily a social history of English.

This book wasn't what I expected it to be,
I liked this book very much altough it was very technical but I expected it would be like that.

Henry Hitchings gives very clear examples when he is explaining something. He compares English to other languages like for e.g. Latin, Spanish , French,etc..

He tells us how English developed during the ages and tells the story of English grammar, how it was founded, who were the most important developers and the difference between British English and American English which was fascinating to read about
Feb 12, 2012 Jim rated it really liked it
Hitchings studies the history of English in order to free us from its grammatical tyranny. (One theme is that a mistake that almost everyone makes isn't really a mistake anymore, if it ever was.) Yet Hitchings is intolerant of the growing loss of distinction between words, the erosion of vocabulary, and the sloppiness of thought that results. He's British, so there's fun here in dissecting the rebelliousness of the American colonies. He's also particularly fun when describing the history of some ...more
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Henry Hitchings is the author of The Language Wars, The Secret Life of Words, Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?, and Defining the World. He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.
More about Henry Hitchings...

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