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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  568 ratings  ·  104 reviews
In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman explode the misconceptions that have led generations of language lovers astray. They reveal why some of grammar's best-known "rules" aren't--and never were--rules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn't necess ...more
Hardcover, 266 pages
Published May 5th 2009 by Random House
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Jun 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I, for obvious reasons, have a great affection for the English Language. It's a rich and exciting tongue, with a history as tangled and strange as they come. Over the last millennium or so, the language has gone through so many shifts and changes that people spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out. Once they do, more often than not, they find that what once was true about their beloved mother tongue just doesn't hold up today.

So there's a choice to be made by lovers of language: deal with
In this book, the co-authors, word mavens, and spouses Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman debunk many misconceptions about language expressions, pronunciations, and rules. Starting a sentence with a conjunction, splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions (that last one solely John Dryden's little caprice, apparently) — all irrelevant to how English has been used by great authors since the time of Shakespeare. The authors take particular delight in uncovering false etymolog ...more
Apr 26, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
An interesting book about word origins and the validity of certain grammatical rules and constructions. While in the main I enjoyed Origins of the Specious, there are two things that restrain it from receiving a higher rating: some parts simply failed to keep my attention, and I felt that the author did not put forth an actual thesis. I agreed with her position that words should be used as contemporary society deems them to be used as long as the individuals that inhabit society can understand a ...more
Beth Cato
Apr 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 2018, writing
If you love language, you'll likely enjoy this book and the dry, gently humor it utilizes to explain word etymologies and controversies. I like how it used citations and quotes to back-up its corrective claims. The book is a bit dated by now, mostly due to the humorous references (iPods are soooo last decade), but the information remains solid. At least, for a few more decades. As the book points out more than once, English is a democratic and oft-evolving language. ...more
Clif Hostetler
The English language is a slippery chameleon; it won't stop changing. As with any human activity subject to change, there are the conservatives, the liberals and the oblivious people. Into this fray the husband wife team of Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman have authored this book to make fun of the snobbish scholars who insist that English follow false rules. But they don't throw out all the rules.

This book includes humorous quips and puns to keep the reader smiling. The authors seem t
Mar 26, 2011 rated it it was ok
"Origins" starts off as a relatively interesting deconstruction of English grammar myths, but quickly turns into a faux-etymological dictionary only to return to grammatical curiosities in the final chapters. As a person interested in linguistics, I tend to fall in the descriptivist camp when it comes to usage--as long as something is understood and accords with what sounds right to the speaker and listener, it is, by definition, good English. The author agrees with this at least. The problem wi ...more
Apr 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Superb book about grammar, etymology, and usage, concentrating mostly on usages that aren't as wrong as many amateur language authorities think. Now I have the confidence to bravely split my infinitives and I know that ending sentences in prepositions is where it's at. AND I can even safely start sentences with conjunctions, because, as she points out, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens all did it, too, and if it's been in the language, as common usage, for 200 years, it has squatter's rights. She ...more
Aug 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Origins of the Specious, Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, by former New York Times editors Patricia T. O'Conner (Woe Is I) and Stewart Kellerman is as entertaining as it is enlightening. I learned plenty after a day on the beach with this gem. Logophiles O'Conner and Kellerman explore the myths that surround language and rules.

Read this book, and you'll learn that the auction block and the auctioneer's block have their roots in slavery (this is where human beings were sold as if
Evanston Public  Library
Do you throw down your gauntlet? Or is that gantlet? Which one do you run? And, is your forté (pronounced FOR-tay) gourmet cooking or playing the flugelhorn? Wait—should I have said forte (pronounced fort)? If you’re curious about which usages and pronunciations are correct, and if you’ve wondered why there is so much confusion, Patricia O’Conner and her co-author Stewart Kellerman are here to set the record straight on these and many other language conundrums. Their lively book is a wonderful t ...more
***Dave Hill
Jan 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: text, non-fiction
This is a greatly entertaining look at the foibles and follies of the English language and its users, in mostly bite-sized chunks for easy reading. The general themes include:

1. A bunch of folk in the 19th Century really screwed English up, tweaking spellings and grammar and "rules" to make it more like Latin, thus classier.

2. A lot of cases today of people saying "That's not proper English! That's not how that's spelled! That's not how that's pronounced! That's not how that's used!" date from
May 17, 2010 rated it liked it
Origins of the Specious is a mildly entertaining mix of descriptivism and prescriptivism. There's a lot of good information to be had, written in a rather witty and pun-laden style, but O'Conner has this rather annoying habit of ending almost every section with, "Although I've just given you lots of information about why it's okay to use this word in a way that the 'purists' deride, you still should avoid doing so because you might offend those purists."

And then there's the final chapter, where
May 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
Well, this is the first book I've finished since I graduated from BC, but that says way more about me and the summer I'm having than about the book. I thought the book was very fun, and I learned a lot about how and why our usage rules have changed (I particularly liked learning more about how some of what people believe to be bad grammar and usage these days was perfectly acceptable just a few centuries ago). I also appreciated the author's attitude toward the topic--grammar and usage shouldn't ...more
May 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is a humorous debunking of misconceptions about the English language. “Prince Charles’ mom may be queen of England, but he has a lot to learn about the Queen’s English,” quip the authors as they deal with the false notion that American English is some sort of backwoods dialect of the real thing. In fact, American English often preserves forms that have gone out of vogue in the old country. The authors go on to deal with usage, grammar, semantics, and etymologies, drawing on the citations in ...more
Jan 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
I love books like this, but maybe that's because I'm a bit of an irritating pedant. But this was very informative and very funny. The format is just a series of anecdotes about the English language and various misconceptions about it. Some of which I was corrected on, some I already knew, and many I had never even heard to begin with. If you like this, then 'The Mother Tongue' by Bill Bryson is a must read. ...more
Jun 20, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is like a digest of the Oxford English Dictionary, which makes it valuable on that basis alone. The author uses lots of corny puns, but provides sound, well-researched definitions.

The only major drawback to reading this book is that it's like reading a dictionary. You really have to stop every so often and read it in chunks because there's no story line, and reading dictionaries is really only entertaining and interesting when it's done in small increments.
Amanda Ogle
Feb 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is really helpful in teaching about the English language. It debunks lots of myths and misconceptions about the English language, as well as explains where we got our words and phrases that can be troublesome. This book helped me to realize that I have been using many words incorrectly, which I appreciate. Every editor or aspiring writer should read this book.
Nov 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
Great book about language myths and assumptions, etymology, etc. Lots of rules I swore by that I've now discovered are completely unfounded, and I love my grammar. A must-read for all language/grammar sticklers. ...more
Jun 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed learning where different words and phrases came from and how some of the grammar rules I've worked so hard to follow do not really apply anymore or are not hard and fast rules. My only complaint it that it ruined the British accent for me. ...more
Nov 12, 2015 rated it liked it
I am interested in words and etymology, but there has to be a hint of a connecting thread for a book about words to become more than a glorified dictionary. This at times read like a dictionary. It lost my attention. I struggled to finish it.
E. C. Koch
May 16, 2019 rated it liked it
My guess is that if you've read a book like this that you've already ready this book. I'd also guess that even if you've already read all the other books like this that you'll still want to read this book. O'Connor doesn't provide a whole lot here that, say, Nunberg and Pinker and Hitchings don't already cover. Popular usage texts are few enough that the same anecdotes tend to get recycled and the same common mistakes tend to get addressed and the same judicious advice balancing the inevitabilit ...more
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a good book for word nerds and people who love grammar, etymologies, and the idiosyncrasies of the English language. It is written from a descriptivist perspective, so grammar fascists and linguistic pedants will probably hate this book: it doesn't label various usages as proper or improper but simply looks at how English speakers actually have used in the past and continue to use the language. Prescriptivists, then, will not find this book to their liking, but for almost anyone else int ...more
Jan 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
An interesting look at the history of our language, Origins of Specious examines the incorrectness of Latin influences to some of our constructions, like how we should never end a sentence with a contraction or split an infinitive to research on the entomology of certain words. As a word lover, a logophile, I find some blows O’Connor delivers against the essence of my soul, but in most aspects, I agree with what she and her counterpart decide.
Massanutten Regional Library
Simone, Central patron, June 2018, 4 stars:

A fun journey through the twists and turns of the history of the English language. Learn more about how and why the British and Americans are separated by a common tongue as well as other interesting etymology.
Dec 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
Very interesting to read. Taught me some stuff I was wondering about and more.
Could have been more in-depth but then it would probably be less amusing to read.
Jun 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was an absolute pleasure to read. If you are a language-nut or and an etymology enthusiast, this is a must-read.
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Content had Interesting bits but the writing style was not for me.
Oct 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfic-adult
My nerdy nature is especially obvious when I run across books on words and grammar.
Aug 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An easy read, very enjoyable and interesting.
Apr 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful! Superlative research, funny wordplay, AND instructive.
Andrew Huff
Written episodically (not unlike a collection of columns, which makes sense considering the author), it’s fun in spurts but a bit tedious for a long sitting. The focus on “myths and misconceptions of the English language” means you sort of know where each passage is heading. Still, if you enjoy etymology and pop history, you might like this.
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