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Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English
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Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  159 Ratings  ·  16 Reviews
Though there is a contingent of linguists who fight the fact, our language is always changing--not only through slang, but sound, syntax, and words' meanings as well. Debunking the myth of "pure" standard English, tackling controversial positions, and eschewing politically correct arguments, linguist John McWhorter considers speech patterns and regional accents to demonstr ...more
Paperback, 302 pages
Published January 25th 2001 by Basic Books (first published January 1998)
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May 06, 2009 Collin rated it liked it
Recommends it for: grammar freaks
Here's the one-sentence description of this book: if a grammar rule forces you to say something awkward or that sounds wrong, then it's a safe bet that what is "wrong" is the grammar rule.

Some of the points he discusses:
-All languages are always changing.
-Just because something in language is "illogical" doesn't mean it's wrong.
-Whom is unnatural because it's the sole remnant of what was hundreds of case endings in Old English. Its death is inevitable.
-They/their is a perfectly acceptabl
Jun 23, 2012 Growlingsoulpup rated it it was amazing
This man is the Captain America to every Grammar Nazi. 'Nuff sed.
May 06, 2014 Riah rated it it was ok
This book just pretty much isn't worth reading. The take home point is that the English we actually speak is fine. This is broken up into three sub ideas. 1) If a finicky grammar rule makes something sound awkward, ignore it. 2) Shakespeare should be "translated" into modern English so people can understand it. And 3) Black English is English. The first point makes sense but isn't exactly groundbreaking, the second I disagree with very, very strongly and the last is painfully obvious (although a ...more
Mar 26, 2011 Keith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book provides lively look at several aspects of modern English from a linguist's perspective.

The book starts with a few chapters discussing the myriad ways that languages and dialects change over time. McWhorter shows that languages are not static and immutable, rather they are constantly evolving over time, like a lava lamp, to use one of McWhorter's favorite metaphors. These opening chapters are pretty much a shortened version of McWhorter's more recent book, The Power of Babel.

Through m
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, which was humor and light-hearted and endlessly entertaining as the author discussed the differences between prescriptivism and descriptivism and the basic pursuit of linguistics in general. It felt like I had transported myself back into Varieties of English, which was possibly my favorite undergraduate course. Then I hit the chapters on Black English. Don't get me wrong--I'm as interested in the argument over Black English as I am every other to ...more
Aug 06, 2009 Deb rated it liked it
I give this a mixed review. Parts of it are excellent. I like the beginning where he lays out the ways that languages change. The chapter on singular "they" is excellent, short and sweet. The chapter introducing Black English is also good. Chapters I don't care for -- the one on Shakespeare makes a good point (the English of Shakespeare's time is different enough to need translation for presentation for contemporary audiences) but is excruciatingly long. (Where was the editor?) The Black English ...more
Mahala Helf
Jul 16, 2009 Mahala Helf rated it liked it
Read the final 3 chapters for a poignant and personal interpretation of one man's experience as well as practical but unproven suggestions on how to improve elementary school teaching of African -American students. His evidence for the success of immersion was purely anecdotal(even though it fits my experiences, too).
Prof totally convinced me Black English is a legitimate dialect of English to be cherished, but African only in rhythm/sound.I enjoyed the comparisons with Creole(his field of stu
Dec 27, 2010 Ilya rated it liked it
Shelves: linguistics
Essays on English, specifically on African-American Vernacular English. McWhorter says that it is a dialect of English, about as far from normative English as the Nottinghamshire dialect of English spoken by Lady Chatterley's eponymous Lover, which is not very far. It has nothing to do with creoles; there is a creole language spoken on South Carolina's Sea Islands, called Gullah, which is similar to Jamaican Patois, but the vast majority of African Americans never spoke it even during slavery. S ...more
Mar 02, 2015 sologdin rated it it was ok
Shelves: linguistics
great idea for a book, though a bit to be desired in the execution. that said, I used it as the master text in a course for undergraduates on the myth of standard English. supplemented it with a history of English (which makes the point handily about the absence of standard English), hughes' swearing, smithermann's talkin' and testifyin', and the chapter's in eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction that discusses the rise of English as a discipline. good class for me, though the students hat ...more
Dec 25, 2007 maybe rated it liked it
Recommends it for: schoolmarms.
Compact and entertaining. It's posited as a challenge to the notion of a "standard" American English, and that it surely is. There are many occasions when the author is given ample opportunity to delve into the politics of language and to discuss the social (and political, economics, etc) aspects of language pedagogy and standardization, but it rarely happens. l A lot of times the writing finds itself ever so lightly lost in its swaths of trivia, none of which are *too" tangential and all of whi ...more
Jul 09, 2011 John added it
Very, very good, but I got sidetracked and had to send it back. I do like Mr. (Dr?) McWhorter's style of writing though - very good blend of linguistic scholarship and popular understanding. I will read more by him, happily.
The biggest thing I got from this (and professional "linguists" are probably not surprised by this, but it was new to me) was the idea that "standard" English is still, despite it's historical dominance, a dialect. Everything is a dialect, but some of them win.
May 29, 2007 kate rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Totally necessary for anyone who would even attempt to criticize modern American language...I was never overly concerned with or interested by lingustics before reading this, and I've certainly made a turnaround since.

Though I don't necessarily agree with the Anglicist paradigm in black vernacular, McWhorter still provides engaging and relevant arguments (whether you agree or disagree).
Nov 16, 2011 Ed rated it really liked it
Very thought provoking. I never thought about English this way and I liked the detailed refutation of treating Black English as just another variation of English. I read this a little bit every day over breakfast. It was a great way to start the day.
Sep 03, 2011 Rick rated it it was ok
Most of McWhorter's arguments are cogent, but I still don't agree with his overall claims. Nonetheless, I think Jill needs to read the last chapter for her dissertation (if, for no other reason, than to have something to argue against).
Raphael Paulian
Feb 21, 2008 Raphael Paulian rated it really liked it
Very reader friendly
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Dr. John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University. Before taking his position at the Manhattan Institute, he held teaching positions at Cornell University, where he held the position of Assistant Professor, and at the University of California, Berkele ...more
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“Prescriptive grammar has spread linguistic insecurity like a plague among English speakers for centuries, numbs us to the aesthetic richness of non-standard speech, and distracts us from attending to genuine issues of linguistic style in writing.” 15 likes
“Modern Our Father, who is in heaven, blessed be your name. Give us our daily bread today. All three of these languages were rich, beautiful systems. There are no dogs to be seen. Middle English, the language of Chaucer, does not give the impression of being a “bastardization” of Old English or an example of “Old English in decay.” It was simply a new English of its own, the product of the gradual transformation of Old English, a transformation barely perceptible to Old English speakers themselves but visible to us by looking at texts over time. Similarly, Modern English, the language of Jane Austen, is surely not “bad” Middle English, but a new English in its own right. In other words, the progression from Old to Middle to Modem English shows us that contrary to the impression so easy” 0 likes
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