Mary Ronan Drew's Reviews > The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings
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Aug 02, 14

bookshelves: library-book
Read on February 06, 2012

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 us. Ebonics, anyone?

On the one hand, this book is so dry I have to keep hand cream by my reading chair. I fell asleep three or four times over the third or fourth page. And if he isn't lively enough in the first few pages to keep even a reader like me awake what can we expect on page 241? On the other hand, there are gems embedded in the sand. I did not know, for instance, that "speakers of Dyirbal in Queensland have traditionally had for all things an everyday word and an alternative one for use in the presence of their mothers-in-law," or that "the Burushaski language spoken in some northern parts of Pakistan distinguishes four genders." (That one threw me a bit. I still haven't worked it out.)

In plugging the value of redundancy, Hitchings contends that "it is the lack of redundancy in mathematics and its teaching that explains why so much maths bewilders so many people." After futzing around for 20 pages he finally defines language. "Language is power." He also says that "'Logic' is often a mask for smugness and jingoism." And that grammatical failings have been associated with moral ones." That last is probably true, but can I trust anything this guy says?

He ticked me off when he stopped his discussion of the validity of using "n't" instead of "not" to lecture America on what he sees as our history of genocide, wars of conquest, imperialism, and I forget what else. (Repetition of these charges tends to do the opposite of convince.) As for the French, Hitchings says that "the main purpose of the Academie Francaise is not to affect the behaviour of French-speakers, but to provide amusement for foreign journalists." Possibly so.

The book is indeed a history of attempts to describe or prescribe grammar and reactions to those attempts and he mostly tells us about the ludicrous mis-statements and frustrated "oughts" and "musts." One grammarian declared in 1762 that "because" was obsolete, and if he's so wrong about that how can he be right to try to standardize spelling and encourage us all to avoid double negatives? There's a name for that illogical assumption but I forget what it is.

I did not know that Joseph Priestly had written a grammar book but as Hitchings implies, why would you listen to a guy who initially called oxygen "dephlogisticated air." Why indeed. He addresses rapidly diverging English English and American English, first mentioned in print in 1663 when it was pointed out that an "ordinary" in America was a tavern whereas in England it was an inn. Things deteriorated from there.

Hitchings is alert for the inconsistencies of people and institutions who/that have taken a position on the descriptive/prescriptive scale. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, was responsible for untold cases of apoplexy when it came out some years ago with a very lax descriptive edition. If a lot of people use "ain't" then "ain't" is an acceptable word. Here's Hitchings' comment:

". . . it is striking that the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary are responsible for a book with the title 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces. Examples include acumen, chimera and niche. If 'almost everyone' mispronounces them, it follows that almost no one pronounces them 'correctly', so perhaps the supposedly correct pronunciations are close to becoming obsolete."

You will be relieved to know that I pronounce these words correctly.

I cringe when people use "whom" when the correct usage (at least for the moment) is "who." When they use "who" for "whom" I don't really care. I answer the phone, "This is she," which usually gets me a moment of silence. I cling bitterly to the difference between lie and lay and a couple of other lost causes, but on the whole I welcome new words from wherever they come (I would be mute without "download," "delta function," "skoch," and "binary.")

But there IS an argument for retaining small distinctions. When "shall" and "will" are interchangeable, "hopefully" is thrown about recklessly, and almost anything can be described as "awesome," we lose subtlety and are less able to communicate fine distinctions. Unfortunately, there are fewer of us trying to do so all the time.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Juanita (new)

Juanita Rice You have, I take it, read "Eats Shoots and Leaves" (with or without commas)? I recommend also a review by David Foster Wallace of a new American Usage book. It's in the anthology of essays Consider the Lobster. I will say, as you've noticed perhaps by now, that I tend toward a severity of outlook on Europe's (and its white colonies') aggressive invasion of the rest of the world from 1492 to 1942, it so happens. It's hard to discuss without turning polarized, and I empathize the dismay of the reader when it's just the familiar accusations.

I didn't get your first sentence for a couple of beats: it took "3 or 4 times over the third or fourth page"--and then I enjoyed. (And there you have sloppy texting usage "3 or 4" vs. yr correct "third or fourth."

I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the book and about language.


Mary Ronan Drew You're right, of course, Juanita, I should have followed the "spell out under 10" rule, but these "reviews" of mine are really glorified emails to my sister so they are pretty sloppy. Unlike yours, which I delight to read. They are professional and give me everything I need to understand a book and know whether I want to read it or not.

I have Consider the Lobster in the other room and will go now and find the review of the usage book.


message 3: by Juanita (new)

Juanita Rice I was looking at my own sentence "3 or 4 times over the third or fourth." You did it right, indeed, the "spell it under 10." God knows I would not criticize the writing in these reviews: I enjoy very much the thoughts as they emerge from others, sometimes spontaneously and colloquially, and sometimes nicely developed. My reviews are "practice" as I try to revive my writing after 40 years of college teaching during which, because of my discipline, I had NO time to keep up with writing. So if any of my reviews seem too pretentious, it's because they are exercises in trying to develop and finish. (And perhaps excuses not to turn to 'career writing.') Thanks.


Mary Ronan Drew Don't worry about being "pretentious," Juanita. Your reviews are anything but. They are long and in depth, and as someone who writes - shall we call them reviewlets - I appreciate how much more attention you have to pay to the book you are reading, how much background you need to comment intelligently about some of what you are reading, and how much work goes into organizing a review logically. All while making it entertaining as well as informative. I am not at the same place as you politically and therefore I value your reviews because I try to read on both sides of the spectrum. (I may be one of 10 people in America still trying to do this.)


message 5: by Juanita (new)

Juanita Rice And a perhaps-futile goal I have is to speak authentically about my beliefs, perhaps even logically, maybe one day persuasively. So I can actually examine what I think by articulating it, and so I can listen to others and exchange. High stakes!


message 6: by Ava (new)

Ava "On the one hand, this book is so dry I have to keep hand cream by my reading chair." - Fabulous!


message 7: by Kilian (new) - added it

Kilian Metcalf It goes down easier in small doses, a paragraph or two at a time. I will probably not finish this book until 2014, but I am enjoying it as I go.


message 8: by Sue (new)

Sue I love answering the phone "this is she". You can almost feel the inner turmoil on the other end of the now non-existent line.


message 9: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein Thank you for a delightful review.


message 10: by Shahine (new)

Shahine Ardeshir What an honest, entertaining and delightful review, thank you :) "this book is so dry I have to keep hand cream by my reading chair" - classic!!!


message 11: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks Wonderful review!


message 12: by Carol (new)

Carol When I need help with grammar I'm going to contact you. I'm often afraid to use lie, lay, lying, laying :)

I do say "This is she".


Mary Ronan Drew Carol wrote: "When I need help with grammar I'm going to contact you. I'm often afraid to use lie, lay, lying, laying :)

I do say "This is she"."


Carol, I almost never use capital/capitol because I'm not sure which is which, despite having lived in the nation's capit . . . um, the DC area for many years.


message 14: by Sue (new)

Sue Thank you Carol and Mary for the last 2 comments. I always find myself pausing before I type affect or effect and I catch myself reciting "i before e, except after c" all the time...but then there are always exceptions! English loves to trip us up :)


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