Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity” as Want to Read:
You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  599 ratings  ·  103 reviews
What is it about other people’s language that moves some of us to anxiety or even rage? For centuries, sticklers the world over have donned the cloak of authority to control the way people use words. Now this sensational new book strikes back to defend the fascinating, real-life diversity of this most basic human faculty.

With the erudite yet accessible style th
Hardcover, 312 pages
Published March 8th 2011 by Delacorte Press (first published January 1st 2011)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about You Are What You Speak, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about You Are What You Speak

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.86  · 
Rating details
 ·  599 ratings  ·  103 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Oct 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Angela by: s
Shelves: read-in-2011
I have long identified myself as a grammar stickler. I'm an editor. My knowledge of the way writing should be structured, imperfect though it may still be, allows me a degree of smug personal satisfaction that I am, in fact, quite the smartypants. Being a stickler means that I don't limit my corrections to the work which I am contracted to correct. My sticklerism spreads its tentacles ever outward, causing me to snigger nastily when confronted with misspelled signage, poorly worded headlines, or ...more
Mar 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
"To reply to an honest question that is perfectly understood with grammatical outrage is a sin against decency." p269.

My linguistics lecturer recommended this to me last semester and I finally got around to reading it. Studying linguistics was eye-opening. Realising that language was fluid and ever-changing. Realising that words such as "nice" and "silly" had wildly different meanings a few hundred years ago. Allowing the penny to drop about the progression of the English language (f
Zac Chase
Jan 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don't find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don't let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different
Mar 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, language
As a linguist, I think we generally do a poor job of explaining our obsession with language to the general public. I wish this book was required reading, especially for anyone who has ever complained about a language deteriorating because of those darn young people.

Most books about language by journalists are frustratingly bad and filled with inaccuracies, but this is very well done. I'll definitely be recommending it to others.
Al Bità
Jul 12, 2015 rated it liked it
The first half of this book is essentially a tirade against “prescriptivists” (those who push the idea that there is a proper way of speaking, spelling, writing and/or punctuating English). Usually popular writers are most often the target, but there are also “more serious” contenders who are equally attacked for their temerity. The main argument is that they are attempting to impose rules that are evaluative and emotive, and that in some cases their arguments in favour of the proposed rule(s) m ...more
Oct 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I won this book in a contest (pose a question) on a friend's grammar website.

PLUG: Arrant Pedantry is a terrific grammar blog:

So, if you care about language or are at all curious about where rules come from, or how language affects politics and wealth, this book is important! If you just like to think about language from time to time, this book is just plain fun.

Robert Lane Greene is a linguist. He is not a stickler or a purist. He is not a prescriptivist. But p
Jacob Lines
Feb 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
Language is important. It helps us understand each other and helps us confuse each other. It holds groups together and keeps them apart. There is a story in the Book of Judges about language. The Gileadites and Ephraimites were at war. The Gileadites took control of some fords on the River Jordan. When somebody came to cross the river at the ford, they asked him if he was an Ephraimite. Then they would ask him to say “shibboleth,” a word that means either a flowing stream or a head of grain. The ...more
Mar 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: amazing
What these attempts to control language have in common is that they are all highly political - even when not advertised as such. The belief that language is powerful and one's own language is special, combined with the fear of others speaking differently (especially if you can't understand them), tempts politicians, and the bureaucrats, schoolteachers, and others who support them, to elevate one specific form of a language and denigrate others, and to mess with language itself. The consequences
Elizabeth Cárdenas
Aug 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
“A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom. Subcultures should be allowed to thrive, not just because it is wrong to squash them, because they enrich the wider culture. Just as Black English has left its mark on standard English Culture, South Africans take pride in the marks of Afrikaans and African languages on their vocabulary and syntax.
New Zealand's rugby team chants in Maori, dancing a traditional dance, before matches. French kids
Oct 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book will definitely encourage you to think about language differently. Lane approaches language as a linguist, not a grammarian. He thinks “flexibility, humility, and multilingualism should take the place of stickerism, arrogance, and nationalism when we think about language”. Not only does Lane give the precriptivists (the proponents of stickerism) short shift* but shows that languages around the world are all able to do the most important thing and that is to facilitate communication amo ...more
Dec 14, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: linguistics
Robert Lane Greene is a correspondent for The Economist; he speaks several European languages and some Arabic, but he is not a linguist. He writes about linguistics using material mostly gathered from other popular books on linguistics, most of which I must have already read, since the majority of his examples seemed familiar to me. Imagine someone who is not a professional computer programmer learning to program in college, reading The Mythical Man-Month, Programmers at Work and a few more such ...more
Alex Templeton
Jun 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating! I feel like I've been waiting for a book like this to come along. Greene describes and in many cases debunks the political associations we make using language. (One of the most common is the idea that those who speak in a 'low' form of a language (those in this country might recognize Ebonics) are somehow dumber than those who speak in a 'higher' form of the language.) He also respectfully chides the 'sticklers' for grammar and language who sit around bemoaning the downfall of langu ...more
Elizabeth Mosley
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
If you've ever found yourself smugly correcting someone's grammar mistake, Greene's book will make you think twice. I'll admit, I fall firmly in the category of what Greene calls "grammar sticklers." Greene argues, however, that language is much more fluid than most of us admit and stubbornly insisting that any given set of grammar rules is the "correct" way to speak or write is perhaps true, but only for right now, and only in certain settings. What we consider appropriate grammar rules probabl ...more
Readable. Enjoyed some particular parts, such describing some writers familiar with, such as Strunk/White and Bryson. I used to worship Strunk/White and Bryson. Once again, I learn how little I know.
Also, I appreciated learning how language binds/unbinds Isreal. An important part of Western Civ.
Jun 03, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: politics, language
I read a review in the NYT and was intrigued, for I love language and grammar and thought, a book for me. It wasn't what I expected, but that's okay. At times it trends toward dry, with statistics from the study of linguistics, but never for too long. Mr Greene speaks 9 languages, so perhaps he's entitled to try to translate a rather arcane branch of study for general readers. The book is more a political investigation than a book about grammar, which thesis seems to be aimed at soothing the roi ...more
Dec 01, 2016 rated it liked it
This book is dedicated largely to debunking some of the most common things we all "know" about language. For example, everyone is clear that English is in a state of terrible decline in the modern era. But nope, people have been saying that since there was a written record of English. English is constantly changing, and that continues to be true. All languages change, but change isn't the same thing as decline.

Another good one: if there isn't a word for something in your language, you can't thi
Katie Cooper
Apr 11, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a departure from what I normally read - YA contemporary - but I do find language fascinating. I read Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought for fun in college, along with various other language and grammar books required in my courses, includig Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots, and Leaves which is mentioned several times in this book. I thought there was little too much history and I'll admit to skimming about 10 pages of middle eastern history. I would definitely consider myself more of a presc ...more
Apr 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was yet another drive-by pickup in the library, so I'm not surprised that it was a little different than what I expected. Greene starts with what I thought would be the meat of the matter - a discussion of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist linguistics (which is a battle I've been having with my father for the entirety of my life). He quickly moves on, however, into the socio-political ramifications of language and language policy. In another life I had plans to become a socio-linguistic antr ...more
Jan 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014
I highly recommend this book to people interested in language, especially if they are unfamiliar with or hostile to linguistics. Greene, an American writer for the British journal "The Economist," has written a non-technical introduction to the human phenomenon of language. He looks at three areas: 1) the science of linguistics, 2) "sticklerism" as a phenomenon of language purists, and 3) language as a reflection of the nation-state. For those interested in language, this would be a wonderful po ...more
Ryan Mishap
Feb 27, 2011 rated it liked it
A robustly argued--while still managing the painting of stripes in the middle of the road--thesis that our languages are just fine; that when people complain about the decline of grammar or of attacks on language, their motives are political ones and not linguistic. He dismisses the idea that the kids these days don't speak nothing right, the idea that immigrants are destroying English and French in the U.S. and France respectively, and other bogeymen of the (mostly) conservative.

Wonderful romp through the question of language(s), superiority and politics. Greene responds to fear-mongers who insist that we are being over-run by Spanish by noting the historical record; far more people spoke German, and there were far more German publications (pre-television) - pre-WWII, than there are Hispanics now. Like most other ethnic groups, while the first generation may only speak Spanish, by the second children speak English away from home, and in the third generation no-one speak ...more
Daniel Christensen
Feb 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Nice discussion by someone who really loves the diversity and richness of language. It’s a bit of a reaction against the more hysterical grammar grouches out there.
He makes the case quite strongly that spoken language precedes written language, and the obsession with applying the strict standards of written language to speech don’t always make sense. Also makes the case quite clearly that dialects (like ‘Black English’) should be accepted for what they are.
The real strength of the book is tyin
Aug 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018, kindle, non-fiction
Despite the title, this is not a Whorfian manifesto, but a sober account of how language variation has been shaped by politics, and vice versa. Ataturk managed to completely change the Turkish language, changing the writing system to latin (from arabic) and removing most words with arab or persian roots. But that was probably the last time it was possible to do that. Today when e.g. the German spelling reform of 1996 tried to change the spelling in certain edge-cases, it was derided and opposed, ...more
Jan 05, 2012 rated it really liked it
A readable introduction to prescriptivist/descriptivist usage debates, language policy, and some basic sociolinguistics issues. In a sense it's an odd hybrid of topics, but Greene pulls off the transitions without too much awkwardness. Chapters include many interesting anecdotes which are drawn from a wide variety of different languages. One can find a few nits to pick here or there where one has expertise, but overall Greene writes with authority and clarity. I recommend it (1) as a corrective ...more
May 18, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
Journalists are great for writing clearly and objectively (well, less emotionally), and that style works well for such a technical subject like linguistics. Greene's argument is not just that language is not deteriorating (and he goes into depth explaining what exactly that would mean and how languages work); he also asserts that much of what goes on in the guise of language control is really geopolitical control. By stamping out minority languages, changing what is "official" language, and anno ...more
Brian Eshleman
Apr 05, 2014 rated it liked it
I think the author's point is a valid one, that language is a living and adaptable tool which changes over time without necessarily degrading in the process. He carefully points out that the educated elite up each age have bemoaned the regression of their language, but that language does continue to function. Once he makes this central point and supports it historically, though, he has little more to say. It gets a little repetitive.
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
I loved the first few chapters of this book where the author critiques the Stickler approach to language. However, as the book progresses, it seemed to me to get bogged down with one issue around language and nationalism and became too detailed and repetitive. I guess, overall, it covered the issues mentioned in the book title. But, for me, it became increasingly boring as the book progressed. I skimmed the last few chapters.
Apr 28, 2011 rated it liked it
I don't know what I was expecting, but this was not it. It was often a critique of the interesting views of 20th century self-appointed word stylists. I had never heard of many of them, nor their peculiar views. I had already reached many of the same conclusions as Mr Greene did. I'm not sorry I read it, but I don't think it contributed to my command of the English language much, which is what I was hoping for.
Apr 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very engaging read. It got a little dry toward the last 1/3 of the book, but that's probably more my fault than the book's. (Crazy thing about a book about the politics of language, it actually talks about politics--a lot.) I still highly recommend this book if you're into just learning more about language as a concept and practice.
Sep 26, 2011 rated it it was ok
Midway through and reluctant to finish. I would not recommend this to anyone familiar with the subject matter, especially if you are in grad school. The historical explanations of nationalism and state-building are elementary and the writing, though likely intentional, is overly simplified. One of Greene's points is that being overly "sticklerish" about grammar contradicts what language is and is not necessary. I guess the unintellectual tone is a part of that. (His biography is clear; he's high ...more
« previous 1 3 4 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
  • What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be
  • The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages
  • Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language
  • The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
  • The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
  • In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
  • Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling
  • Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic
  • The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  • The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel
  • Far from the Madding Gerund: And Other Dispatches from Language Log
  • Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts
  • Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
  • Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms
  • The F-Word
  • Language Myths
See similar books…
“Language is not law; it is in fact a lot like music. Speech is jazz – first you learn the basic rules, and then you become good enough to improvise all the time. Writing is somewhat more like classical composition, where established forms and conditions will hold greater sway.” 4 likes
“A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom. Subcultures should be allowed to thrive, not just because it is wrong to squash them, because they enrich the wider culture. Just as Black English has left its mark on standard English Culture, South Africans take pride in the marks of Afrikaans and African languages on their vocabulary and syntax.
New Zealand's rugby team chants in Maori, dancing a traditional dance, before matches. French kids flirt with rebellion by using verlan, a slang that reverses words' sounds or syllables (so femmes becomes meuf). Argentines glory in lunfardo, an argot developed from the underworld a centyry ago that makes Argentine Spanish unique still today. The nonstandard greeting "Where y'at?" for "How are you?" is so common among certain whites in New Orleans that they bear their difference with pride, calling themselves Yats. And that's how it should be.”
More quotes…