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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating Details  ·  461 Ratings  ·  110 Reviews
For language buffs and lexicographers, copy editors and proofreaders, and anyone who appreciates the connection between language and culture—the illuminating story of “proper English.”

In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate, or otherwise organize, the way we speak. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma offers the first narra
Hardcover, 326 pages
Published October 27th 2009 by Walker Books (first published 2009)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,294)
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Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle)
Enlightening, enjoyable, entertaining. One might expect the first adjective, but certainly not the other two when describing a book on the subjects of linguistics and lexicography. However, I believe that this book will not only appeal to those familiar with these subjects, but also to those taking their first foray into the territory. This isn't some fusty old textbook, laying out the history of the English language, invasion to invasion, scribe to Gutenberg. Instead, it's a jolly romp through ...more
N.T. Embe
Dec 17, 2011 N.T. Embe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Readers, Writers, and all lovers of the English Language or language in general!
Recommended to N.T. by: Jack Lynch <3 (Development of the English Language Class)
Shelves: education
So what is this book about? For its fancy appearance and title, its roots are simple: a history and explanation of the English language, and how it works and has worked.

Not too hard to understand. So why the big hype about it? Why do I flaunt and fangirl and rave like a joyous kid who got their dose of candy--and then some!--when I talk about this book? Well, that's because most of the things addressed in this book are RELEVANT and cause the most hubbub today out of countless things going on in
Oct 27, 2012 David rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-teaching
Audio interview with the author available here.

A good reminder for those of us in the English teaching racket that our awesome pedagogical skills and overwhelming personal charisma are employed in the advancement of an arbitrary set of rules which assembled themselves more or less by accident. That might depress some people, but I find it strangely cheering and liberating.

Chapter 10, about the scandalized mutterings generated by the 1961 release of Webster's Third New International Dictionary,
Mar 10, 2010 Andres rated it really liked it
As a recovering English major I still have a weakness for language histories and this book sure does hit the language history spot. While not a language history per se, it does trace the history of the ever evolving debate about what is considered proper or improper in the English language. As much a history as a biography, Lynch hits all the big language personalities and topics, from Johnson working on his dictionary up to modern day dictionary wars between Merriam-Webster and the American Her ...more
Mar 16, 2015 Melody rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
This book satisfied the word geek in me - I'm eternally researching the etymology of any unique word or trying to decipher how much loyalty to bestow on various grammar "rules". I'm constantly trying to find the balance between being a rule-follower and a free spirit, and it seems that most lexicographers have a similar dilemma. The book was well organized (vital for nonfiction) and written in a clear, entertaining manner. I listened to the audio, but will be buying the print copy to reread in b ...more
Mar 07, 2011 Meghan rated it really liked it
Shelves: pleasure-reading
Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is an entertaining introduction to the history of the “rules” of English language and those that attempted to develop those rules.

The book addresses the arguments of the prescriptive and descriptive linguists in a way that is conversational and anecdotal. Interesting examples are provided from the past as well as the present in a really great attempt to bring this linguistic argument down from the often unavailable rhetoric of academics and into the hand
Christine Wells
Mar 31, 2012 Christine Wells rated it liked it
Shelves: early-modern, history
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma is essentially a history of standard English. Lynch anchors his text in Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth century with fairly frequent allusions to the Renaissance and occasionally to the Middle Ages. Following the development of dictionaries, thesauruses and other linguistically-focused texts intended for the general public, Lynch demonstrates the longevity of the feud between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. [return][return]As one might expect, the prescriptivi ...more
Aug 27, 2012 Lori rated it liked it
Most reviewers call this book a history of English. It is actually a history of ‘proper’ or Standard English, the English we are taught in school, the English that people are forever complaining is degenerating into mere babble. It is also good introduction to the battle between descriptive vs. prescriptive English. In a way, this book is a rebuttal to the books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Those of us with more knowledge (like me) may have some com ...more
Aug 23, 2013 Beth rated it it was amazing
This book covers some of the problems of English grammar. It deals with a couple of basic questions: 1. What is proper English? and 2. Who decides that?

It introduces the conflict between the prescriptivists, who believe in proper English and think the current usage is a sign of moral decline and the English speaking world going to Hell-in-a-hand-basket, and their opponents, the descriptivists who want to go by how English is currently spoken.

There are chapters on how and why spelling was standar
Ryan Mishap
Jul 17, 2010 Ryan Mishap rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
English is approximately 1500 years old and no one suggested there should be rules for spelling, grammar, or what words one chooses to use until recently. Indeed, until the printing press came along and writing began its conquering march over language, how one spoke was only governed by how everyone spoke--common usage, in effect. Even as writing gained prominence, spelling was left to individuals (and printing shops made their own decisions) and grammar remained organic--until the 18th century. ...more
Sep 26, 2011 Shirley rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, language, 2011
Overall this is an accessible, nontechnical introduction to the history of the (attempted) regulation and evolution of the English language. More like a 3.5-star read. (Could have been four stars, but hard to say because I read most of it sometime between 3 and 5 am during these last weeks of pregnancy...) In the prescriptivist-descriptivist divide in linguistics (where prescriptivists are more, well, prescriptive/rule based and descriptivists lay out - with less judgment - the way language is o ...more
Dec 27, 2011 Ami rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011
My friend Adrian wrote a brilliantly concise & astute review that I can't get out of my head when I'm reading, so I'd recommend checking that out too.

An intelligent & fun meander through the history of the English language, and the (mostly) men who attempted to shape it through dictionary-making and other means. The conclusion, however, is that English is shaped by the way its speakers and writers use it, for good or bad. Lynch comes down as a smooth blend of descriptivist (language is a
Jan 28, 2011 Adrian added it
If you have ever railed on about the poor English grammar in the world today- and who hasn't?- this is the book for you. Lynch details the spectacular futility of attempts to reform English spelling and grammar as well as attempts to stop the language from changing. He divides all lexicographers- amateur or professional- into two groups; descriptivists and prescriptivists. The first describe language the second are intent on shaping it. Lynch is a descriptivist which is a little unsettling at fi ...more
Nov 27, 2014 Marie rated it it was amazing
I bounced a little in my chair, silently squeeing as I realized the chapter I was reading was laying the groundwork for the OED and the author was drawing out the reveal just for my own personal delight.

So, if you don't mist up at the thought of Strunk and White, as I did a few chapters later, you might not enjoy this book as thoroughly as I did - but it is still an engaging, fun read. Lynch mixes history with wit and humility to paint a clear picture of our struggle with our own language. My on
Tyler Lowery
Jan 30, 2016 Tyler Lowery rated it really liked it
Jack Lynch provides an excellent view into the history of lexicography in the Lexicographer's Dilemma. It acts well as a guide through the advent and revision of a number of important artifacts of our journey to record the English language. He recounts the first dictionaries and the lexicographers taxed with creating them, the choices they made throughout the process, and how the public reacted when the lists and definitions were released.

While initially thinking this book to be a history of di
Oct 04, 2015 Melinda rated it it was amazing
Brilliant. A fascinating journey into the world of the spoken and written word and learning about the history of English has never been put forward in such an interesting way. Well worth a look. Definitely not a dry, boring read.
Mar 29, 2010 Margie rated it really liked it
Shelves: words
I was a bit surprised by engaging this book is. The book looks at this history of English, with a focus on the tools (spellers, grammars, and dictionaries) developed by either prescriptivists or descriptivists. It was fascinating.
Jun 11, 2016 Andrea rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book was mildly interesting, but not really what I was hoping for. I was looking to really dig into language and usage history, but instead of talking about the language itself, the book was much more interested in the history of people writing about the language: entire chapters devoted to the creation of Johnson's and Webster's dictionaries, discussion of the rise of usage and style manuals (Fowler's, Strunk & White's, etc.), but comparatively little about the words and phrases that a ...more
Oct 10, 2012 Pancha rated it really liked it
A very droll book about the history of English as seen through books about English. Recommended to anyone who works with words, or just loves them.
Jan 28, 2016 Erika rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. History is my favorite topic and I love books that not only teach me about the topic it's based on, but about connected things and issues and the world and times in which they happened. This book does this many times over.
I knew some of the historical facts mentioned and highlighted in this book, but I had never seen them in this context before and made me see and understand things in a new way, there were many ah ha! and now I see! moments through out this book.

Linda Benedict
Ever wonder who decided you can't end a sentence with a preposition? Who decided Americans should spell differently from the English? [color, colour, center, centre] Where OK came from? This is the book for you. I found it to be a fun read, even though it's not a subject I have any background in. [Didn't I just end that sentence with a preposition? What a scamp.] It is a series of essays that tells us how the English language has evolved, and became 'regulated'. Though I'm with the Founding Fath ...more
Jun 11, 2010 Steven rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, culture, language
This is the sort of book I just eat up. And the author takes just the right approach, carefully outlining the development of English spelling and grammar, while reveling in all the variations we English speakers come up with. (And yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition. Get over it.)

I really enjoyed Lynch's description on the rise of spelling and grammar "normalization" that began in the late 17th century. Before that time, spelling and grammar weren't anything that anyone seemed to
Nov 03, 2012 Elizabeth marked it as to-read
Recommends it for: everyone who is frustrated with the English language
from the library
Rob is reading this and he read me many tidbits. Delicious.

from the library computer

Table of Contents

Introduction 1 (8)
Vulgarities of Speech

Homo Sapiens Learns to Speak
9 (18)
The Age in Which I Live

John Dryden Revises His Works
27 (22)
Proper Words in Proper Places

Jonathan Swift Demands an Academy
49 (22)
Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind

Samuel Johnson Lays Down the Law
71 (23)
The Art of Using Words Properly

Joseph Priestley Seeks Genuine and Establishe
Oct 16, 2012 Martin rated it it was amazing
Every book on language that I read becomes my favorite of the genre, simply because of my passion for language, words, etymologies, and the like. However, this stands out as a clear champion for several reasons. Firstly, he absolutely stays on message of the subtitle on the book. There's a tremendous focus from which the author does not veer. Secondly, and this represents a huge bias on my part, he lays to rest so many of the curiosities of various head-scratching spellings endemic in the langua ...more
Jan 02, 2011 Alex rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Stars: 4.5/5

If you like words--their history, the fights they cause and their creation--then give this book a gander.

The "Average Joe" probably isn't going to willingly pick up this book, although it's written to be easily accessible and enjoyable. And how many books discussing and analyzing the history of English can make that claim? Lynch uses a sense of humor, dry wit, and a balanced perspective in his writing, so that what could be long and tedious is educational and fun.

Yes, fun.

Some parts
Caitlin Marineau
An excellent overview of the history of grammar and lexicography. The book is not so much a history of English grammar, but of the attempts beginning in the 18th century to regulate the language. Prior to this period, no native speaker would have understood the concept of studying grammar (why would they need to study a language they already know?). Once the "grammarians" got involved, however, it was a new game, which has led us to our current state of bizarre, often pointless, rules. Many of t ...more
Jan 13, 2012 Gregory rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction

If you like words and writing, then go read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. It is a history of the power of words and how people have struggled to control them. He emphasizes that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and in fact some of the best parts are his descriptions of others' prescriptions. There is no ruler across the knuckles here.

Lynch documents the man
Paul Fidalgo
Jun 20, 2011 Paul Fidalgo rated it really liked it
Jack Lynch's fascinating book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma, is full of original insights, refreshing perspective, and delightful trivia about our mother tongue. Itspans history and academia to lend understanding to what it means for a word to be considered an "official" part of the English language. The gist, as you might surmise, is that there is no such thing as the official version of the language. Dictionaries and pedants have over the centuries set down guidelines about propriety, some more ...more
Jan 11, 2013 Casey rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I read The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch, which discusses the evolution of the English language, particularly its written form. Beginning with speculation on how language originated, Lynch moves from a discussion of language to the written word. Then came most of the book: a discussion of lexicography and what qualifies as "proper" English. Some of this discussion was, well, quite dull-- I skimmed some pages on the specifics of various accomplishments of hundred year old men. But for the ...more
James Williams
I'm a fan of the English language. I'm not an expert, certainly. This review itself will show that I don't have a deft hand with a pen (or keyboard, as it were) and sometimes it takes a few tries to get the denser works of the masters through my skull. Yet, despite my own mastery of the language, I have a love for well-chosen phrases and the amusing word-play.

Throughout my life, I've moved from being a strict prescriptivist to being a more forgiving descriptivist more times than I can count. I
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Goodreads Librari...: Are ISBN numbers ever different? 7 183 Aug 27, 2012 10:17AM  
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“People of very different opinions--friends who can discuss politics, religion, and sex with perfect civility--are often reduced to red-faced rage when the topic of conversation is the serial comma or an expression like more unique. People who merely roll their eyes at hate crimes feel compelled to write jeremiads on declining standards when a newspaper uses the wrong form of its. Challenge my most cherished beliefs about the place of humankind in God's creation, and while I may not agree with you, I'll fight to the death for your right to say it. But dangle a participle in my presence, and I'll consider you a subliterate cretin no longer worth listening to, a menace to decent society who should be removed from the gene pool before you do any more damage.” 6 likes
“To this day, good English usually means the English wealthy and powerful people spoke a generation or two ago.” 5 likes
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