Monday, December 21, 2009

To boldly grow
Review by Henry Hitchings Published FT Weekend: December 18 2009

Three books raise intriguing questions on the proper usage of English

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Eolution of ‘Proper’ English from Shakespeare to South Park By Jack Lynch Walker $26, 326 pages

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language By Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman Random House $22, 266 pages

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition By HW Fowler With a new introduction and notes by David Crystal Oxford University Press £14.99, 784 pages

If you want to provoke a really scorching exchange of views, then make a claim about the proper usage of English. Better still, commit what most people would consider a grammatical mistake. On internet discussion boards and comment pages, arguments about English usage rapidly mutate into disputes – or, in the argot of cyberspace, “flame wars” – of eye-watering unpleasantness.
We all have an idea of what it means to use English correctly. But many of our notions about what is right and wrong are hard to justify. Why exactly should one not split an infinitive? Why are we not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition? Grumblers and pedants are apt to offer emotive explanations, yet most of their arguments are informed by tradition or aesthetic judgments.
Complaints that English is being debased by the internet, text messaging, progressive teaching methods or slovenly journalism are common. But while these particular irritants may be fairly new, the theme of protest is not.
Nor are books on the subject. They have been around for centuries, and remain a flourishing publishing genre, as this latest crop shows.
The full review at FT Weekend online.

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