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

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  623 ratings  ·  129 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 November 3rd 2009 by Walker Books (first published 2009)
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Lolly's Library
Nov 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 02, 2010 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 06, 2010 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
N.T. Embe
Sep 23, 2011 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)
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
Aug 25, 2012 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 complai ...more
Jun 09, 2011 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
Ilya Hanafi
Jan 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
If you fancy language and culture as much as I do, you'll love this book. And I use info in this book as my ammo to the grammar police out there.
Jen Knapp
Feb 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Finally finished this beast!!!!! Lots and lots of info stuffed into this book. In my opinion, the writing style was geared specifically for a scholarly audience. If you like a bit of a pretentious vibe, you'll like the book. If not, definitely skip it. I'll leave you with the best quote of the book: "Grace and clarity should always trump pedantry." Get off your high horse about language, people, and communicate with grace and clarity. Love it.
Nov 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: adult, steven, non-fiction
This book was a really interesting look at where the "rules" for English or even the idea that there are/should be rules come from. I've read a lot of history of English language books over the years, and I still learned a lot
Joseph Lawrence
May 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing

Not everyone's choice-- full of information and anecdotes about the origins of the Engish language and the dictionaries.

This book's for anyone who loves word origins and laughs at lolcat comics.
Oct 04, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: language, 2011, nonfiction
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
Aug 23, 2013 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
Jan 22, 2010 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
Jan 29, 2011 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 as langua
Jan 28, 2011 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
May 27, 2014 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
Oct 26, 2009 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.
Aug 08, 2015 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.
Apr 09, 2012 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.
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was a very accessible book for my students in an Intro to the History of English Language class geared towards for Secondary Ed majors. It had a definite moral that is consistent with most linguistic texts: that there's no inherently right way to do English. Much of what is taught as "wrong" in grade school English courses do not uphold a standard of clarity, Lynch argues, but one of formality/politeness and adherence to a dominant dialect. To Lynch's credit, his manner of presenting this a ...more
Paul Fidalgo
Jan 09, 2010 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. It spans 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 mor ...more
Jun 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you like words, or grammar, or language, you will love this book. How did English end up as the English we speak today? Where did all the grammar rules come from (such as not ending a sentence with a preposition)? Who decided these rules? How do dictionaries affect grammar and the choice of words that one uses?
Much of the book deals with the two types of grammarians – the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. One wants to set hard and fast rules to the language, the other wants to describ
Dec 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I really enjoyed it, "from Shakespeare to South Park" is a bit of a misleading subtitle, as neither of these entities enjoys much stage time. However, it's still a great read that reminds us all the hard an fast rules that govern our language are not nearly as long-standing or immutable as we would believe them to be. In short, the message is "lighten up and don't get too hung up on this kind of thing, because it'll change in a hundred years anyway". That being said, I did also like that h ...more
Sep 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
The author treats a potentially tedious subject with wit as well as wisdom. Anyone who loves language will be entertained. Despite having studied & taught English for many years, I learned a lot about how our language has evolved & continues to do so. A good example concerns the shortening of disrespect to "diss," with traditionalists maintaining that "disrespect" is not even a verb but is & has always been a noun. Oops. In 1614 poet George Wither used it as a verb, while the first recorded use ...more
Super fun account of the history of prescriptivist attempts to "protect" English from "subcultural colloquialisms" that will inevitably lead to ruination and despair, with a lot of interesting grammatical and etymological digressions along the way. As a recovering prescriptivist of sorts, I appreciated the clear-eyed look at the difference between "situationally inappropriate dialect" and "shitty English." It was mildly repetitive, though, and I wish Lynch had dug in more on the racism of it all ...more
Dec 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Entertaining, enlightening, and exceptionally lucid. Jack Lynch has a hundred anecdotes about the history of English, and here he ties them all together into a compelling, easy-to-read narrative that tells the story through the history of its dictionaries. And his thesis, too, is well-taken: he rightly ridicules the prescriptivists who try in vain to maintain some mythical linguistic purity, but he also has tough talk for descriptivists so doctrinaire that they too end up reasoning normatively a ...more
Veronica Juarez
Sep 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks
An interesting, enlightening and certainly entertaining walk through evolution of English language and the multiples dilemmas it has faced. This book explanains how English has been working and developing through years.

Complete review on Medium.
Brandi Thompson
Mar 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Possibly my favorite language history book thus far! Engaging, educational, and humorous, while reminding us that judging the worth of others based on their language is unwise. So much of “proper” grammar is based on classism. I really enjoyed this book a lot and would recommend it to anyone who loves language, history and sociology.
Dec 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: a-good-one-yes
So masterful and helpful I've decided to keep it on my shelf as a third companion to the Oxford English Dictionary. A very good study of our language. The way it's supposed to be used.
Amjad Al Taleb
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: linguistics
The amazing history of the English language dictionaries written in the most delightful narrative.
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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.” 7 likes
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