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Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation
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Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  577 ratings  ·  112 reviews
The author of Reading the OED presents a look at language “mistakes” and how they came to be accepted as correct—or not.

English is a glorious mess of a language, cobbled together from a wide variety of sources and syntaxes, and changing over time with popular usage. Many of the words and usages we embrace as standard and correct today were at first considered slang, impol
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published June 3rd 2014 by TarcherPerigee
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Aug 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book rocked my world. I have been (until today?) a pacifistic pedant--someone who silently judges others' grammatical errors without daring to interrupt and correct them.

Shea's book tells me to relax, or maybe to go to hell. Shea has researched the history of usage for dozens of words and phrases whose use is closely monitored by those who would defend proper English.

Shea's devastating point is that "proper English" is inevitably arbitrary, far more so than any of us would care to admit. W
Oct 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
Another fun [if I may use that "slovenly adjective"] romp through the English language with Ammon Shea! Those who take a prescriptive approach to English grammar will be outraged by his sly and humorous undercutting of many beloved and bogus ["a colloquial term incompatible with dignified diction"] rules that attempt to govern "our magnificent bastard tongue" [in the words of John McWhorter]. I found it to be well written, informative, and diverting [and yes, I do insist on using the Oxford comm ...more
Feb 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015-reads
Mr. Shea takes an in-depth look at the evolution of our English language. Traveling along an easily understood timeline he looks at words and phrases that began as mistakes and misspeaks yet have now become commonplace and acceptable in both the written and spoken word. And yes, there is a difference in what is acceptable in written and in spoken English. Just to enlighten you a little, “stupider” is not a word and “OMG” is not a 21st century acronym. Language is alive and as such it evolves wit ...more
Jun 03, 2014 rated it it was ok
Nov 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: linguistics
An anti-prescriptivist exercise, perhaps part of the runaway hit niche subgenre of lexicographers’ humor.

Provides historical analysis of the usage of favorites such as: hopefully, literally, decimate, enormity, enervate, aggravate, unique, belittle, balding, stupider, irregardless, impact, finalize, contact, fun, very, inter alia. Reconsiders grammatical rules upon which linguistic fascists continue to insist: split infinitives, different from/than, but v. and, that v. which, prepositions at the
Jan 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This was a good read! Shea is a very humorous writer. What I enjoyed was that this book underscored the fluidity of the English language and how many of the rules of writing are a relatively modern concept. Are there rules? Yes. But the idea is that rigidity that some may wish, simply cannot win over popular usage (like starting sentences with "but").

The setup was fun. Each chapter would begin with a quoted "rule," followed by another quote that directly contradicts it. Even better was when it
Oct 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: language
Between You and I, split infinitive, hopefully and more? Here the author presents a historical analysis on each of these contested English usage. The narrative is always like this: the usage didn't get any backlash until 16th century, then some grammarians started to find fault with it and the public followed but now we are all free to say what we want as the rule against it is not coherent/logical/feasible, all presented with a long list of references.

While I'm definitely on the descriptivist
Oct 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A great book! It is literally (not figuratively) a history of grammarians' (is that apostrophe in the correct place?) gripes about the semantics and grammar of the English language, most of which I didn't know were ever a problem! It is funny and it appealed to my nerdy linguist side. If you too have a nerdy linguist side, or if you are a "grammar nazi" who needs a dose of reality, I highly recommend this book. ...more
Chris Eirschele
Jul 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
Writers will want this book for a reference on their desks but, for the first time, read it through cover to cover. Worth highlighting and page marking, too.
Becky Loader
Feb 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Oh. My. Gosh. I wish my Aunt Dot was still around so that I could recommend this book to her. She and I had so many conversations about how the English language was abused/changing/morphing/degrading, etc.

One of my all time pet peeves is when people decide to make a noun into a verb, and there is a chapter here entitled "Verbing Nouns." Need I say more? Ahem. E.G. "He disrespected me." No. He treated you with disrespect. Probably because you are shredding the English language.

Forsooth: whither
Apr 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
We all have our language peeves, plus the rules we were taught in grade school, plus Strunk and White and whatever other usage guides we consult. And much of that is wrong.

Writing manuals and stylebooks are plagued by language “rules” that have no basis in English grammar, that fail to take into account the fact that living languages change, or that are someone’s “aggravations” that got codified, serving only to distinguish those in the know from the “barbarians.”

Author Ammon Shea, who read the
Jun 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: linguists + anybody interested in how language works
I can't tell you how many times this book has made me laugh out loud. I utterly loved it.

Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation belongs to the genre of learned exposition, although the language used is only occasionally academic. This book takes the reader on a journey through English language usage, and specifically which usages are or were considered "bad" English. Its pedagogic aim is aided by a conversational, at times quite informal style, which never takes away from the primary i
Marcella Wigg
A decent smackdown of prescription in English grammar. Shea is preaching to the choir here. I have long been irritated by grammatical prescription. Especially by people who feel the need to correct my grammar in casual conversation. As if I, an English major in college, don't know that according to grammar rules I was taught in elementary school, the proper response to "How are you?" is "well," not "good." Shea presents the reasons why grammar hardliners should cool it, including from fronts I h ...more
Jun 14, 2014 rated it liked it
3 1/2 stars. This book presents a lot of information about grammar, and I really enjoyed that the author was objective in presenting various words, phrases, or rules that some view as correct or incorrect. It presented a lot of information, and then told "both sides" of the argument for or against that rule, including the history behind many rules or arguments. The only drawback, to me, was that I thought it could have been organized a bit better. I thought some of the chapters or way things wer ...more
Anna Kramer
Jun 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Ammon Shea brings to Bad English what most linguists lack in their prescriptivist rants: a humorous rather than indignant look at the ever-changing English language. The book is not the most useful or comprehensive investigation of "linguistic aggravation", but its insightful analysis highlights the importance of the drive to preserve language and the paradoxical absurdity of that same overwrought fervor. What Shea lacks in cohesion he makes up for in sass, his dry sarcasm well worth the frequen ...more
Jenny Lee
Jul 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you love etymology (i.e. the origin of words), then Bad English should be a pretty entertaining read! I found the book especially interesting given the fact that I've worked as an ESL teacher for years, and long ago acknowledged just how crazy the English language is... Indeed, we have no idea how wacky our language is, and we should all be humbled that so many around the world endeavor to learn it (although I know this is arguablyy a reflection of market/neocolonial/globalization/etc.... pre ...more
Jul 06, 2014 marked it as to-read
Shelves: n-o
I'm seeing myself yelling at this guy while reading -- I only agree with his "common usage trumps inflexible rules" in as much as it's accurate. e.g. "literally" for "figuratively" will forever grate the nerves. ...more
Jan 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: finished
Provided a better understanding of how meanings shift over time and how debates about the 'proper' use of language unfold as these ideas are negotiated. The writing itself was nimble and clear. ...more
Apr 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
We have two parties on English usage - the descriptivists and the perscriptivists - as Mary Noris remarks in Between You and Me, we may as well be the democrats and the republicans.

When it comes to standard written English - see David Foster Wallace on Authority and American Usage essay in Consider the Lobster - I am in the prescriptivist party.

So I am predisposed to pan a descriptivist book and Shea's sneaky ways and filler fulled writing doesn't help
Kellie Reynolds
Jul 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
The author discusses many word usage and grammatical errors that we love to pick on. (Such as ending a sentence with a preposition- ha ha). He points out the many changes in English over time. The historical aspect of the book is interesting. His bottom line seems to be- language should be clear and elegant, but there is no need to be uptight and nitpick the way others write.

The specific topics include:
1. Semantics (shifting meaning of words). Examples include hopefully, literally, enormity, ag
Lauryn Smith du Toit
Hopefully my review of Ammon Shea’s “Bad English” leaves no stone unturned, literally bemusing you because it ain’t boring irregardless of your interest in linguistics.

Did anyone cringe at my deprived use of the English language in that opening sentence? Good. I intended that, and Shea was my inspiration.

In his nonfiction book “Bad English,” Shea delineates the language's history, illustrating the worries, objections and complaints of grammarians throughout the ages. In doing so, he intentionall
Caroline Berg
Feb 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Ah, I do so love a book about words, and word uses.

Now, if only some fool person hadn't "corrected" the copy of this I checked out from the library. I mean really, I get that you are reading the book to learn about words, but the corrections the person made weren't even correct! Gallic is must definitely different from Gaelic, and don't get me started on the commas added in!

But that is neither here nor there, as it has nothing to do with the actual content of the book.

I have to admit, I did lik
Janet Gardner
Jun 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
I'm endlessly fascinated by the English language and its history, so this was a good read for me. It's not a how-to book on grammar and usage, but rather an exploration of where the rules--or perhaps I should say "rules"--of English come from and how they have changed over the centuries. Did you know it was once considered hopelessly vulgar to use the word lunch as a noun? Or that Shakespeare was roundly condemned in the eighteenth century for ending sentences in prepositions, even though the ru ...more
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Okay, so I picked this book because English, any language, isn't my strong suit. Dyslexia.
Even writing this review, which is why I don't write many reviews, I have to use spell check and re-read, have software that aids me in this, so what I wrote to see if it makes sense. It's more of a chore than it is usually worth. This book is worth that chore.
I "read" the audiobook, it's not possible for me to read audio, so I listened to it.

Now, I thought this book is going to make me feel stupid and inad
Bad English is a surprisingly interesting read despite the subject matter and at times humorous as well. I admit to being a bit of a stickler when it comes to some aspects of grammar and usage, such as specific things bothering me. A number of the things included in the book are hard on my ears, such as hearing "funner," "ain't," "literally," "stupider," and other such words. Apparently I am a big fan of putting "more" in front of a word rather than adding "-er". But the majority of words did no ...more
Nov 04, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, language
It was quite interesting to see how grammar and usage have changed over the centuries. A word or its use may have been acceptable hundreds of years ago, and then have become unacceptable with the passage of time. In addition, the acceptability of some words has changed numerous times. Shea makes a substantial case that English is a vibrant language that is constantly adding new words, rediscovering old words, and finding new ways to communicate (email, texting, etc.). This adaptability is its st ...more
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is one of those books that someone gave me and it took up residence in my book pile for quite some time. I wish I had picked it up sooner. Shea's book does not seek to solve any grammatical conundrums; instead he traces the historical origins of the discrepancies and offers fair-minded research in favor of both sides (such as ending a sentence with a preposition, or the modern usages of LOL, OMG and :)) I found this book at times laugh-out-loud funny, which is to me always a welcome diversi ...more
Nov 18, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
From the same guy who read the entire OED and then read the phone book, this book was not what I expected. Instead of criticizing abusers of the English language, he more often criticizes the criticizers. Fighting semantic drift isn't worth it to my mind or Shea's. See the word "aggravation," which could mean "to make a problem worse" or the informal definition "to exasperate," in the title above. I think both interpretations were intended, since this book has examples from several centuries of ...more
Brian Beatty
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library-borrow
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, primarily for the movie informed rebellious nature of it. By providing a detailed account of the history of preferences for grammar and word usage, Shea provides a heaped big dose of reality l check to the otherwise authoritative approach of grammarians. Principally, the problem lies in assertions that there is only one correct way, or that the right way is the original way, to do things. Clearly that is false, as rules and words change all the time. As a scientis ...more
Erin Brenner
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
Ammon Shea’s new book tackles peever rules, freeing readers to use good and bad English.

Imagine you were charged with keeping English tidy for users and had to follow these rules:

A word must have only one meaning.
It must have only its oldest meaning.
It must have only the meaning related to its etymology.
It must not be a synonym.
Its prefix and suffix must not duplicate meaning.
It must not shift its meaning.
It must not shift its part of speech.
About now, you’re shaking your head, thinking, “That’s
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Ammon Shea is the author of two previous books on obscure words, Depraved English and Insulting English (written with Peter Novobatzky). He read his first dictionary, Merriam Webster's Second International, ten years ago, and followed it up with the sequel, Webster's Third International. ...more

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