I've been blogging for almost 7 years now and recently I've been reading some of my older blogs. There are a few that I particularly like and that I think deserve to be reposted. So here, from out of the past, is a review of a book about correct English usage, assuming there is such a thing.
Ah the joys of disparaging those who disagree with us about English usage. They seem never to get old. The author of this "History of Proper English," Henry Hitchings, while he tells us repeatedly that he does not take a stand, he's just explaining to us what has happened over the years, is actually quite opinionated. In his opinion there are no valid standards, all standards are artificial (he speaks repeatedly of "bogus" rules), and no one has a right to impose his "standards" on the rest of us. Ebonics, anyone?
On the one hand, this book is so dry I have to keep hand cream by my reading chair. I fell asleep three or four times over the third or fourth page. And if he isn't lively enough in the first few pages to keep even a reader like me awake what can we expect on page 241? On the other hand, there are gems embedded in the sand. I did not know, for instance, that "speakers of Dyirbal in Queensland have traditionally had for all things an everyday word and an alternative one for use in the presence of their mothers-in-law," or that "the Burushaski language spoken in some northern parts of Pakistan distinguishes four genders." (That one threw me a bit. I still haven't worked it out.)
In plugging the value of redundancy, Hitchings contends that "it is the lack of redundancy in mathematics and its teaching that explains why so much maths bewilders so many people." Who knew? After futzing around for 20 pages he finally defines language. "Language is power." Useful, that. He also says that "'Logic' is often a mask for smugness and jingoism." And that grammatical failings have been associated with moral ones." That last is probably true, but can I trust anything this guy says?
He ticked me off when he stopped his discussion of the validity of using "n't" instead of "not" to lecture America on what he sees as our history of genocide, wars of conquest, imperialism, and I forget what else. (Repetition of these charges tends to do the opposite of convince.) As for the French, Hitchings says that "the main purpose of the Academie Francaise is not to affect the behaviour of French-speakers, but to provide amusement for foreign journalists." Possibly so.
The book is indeed a history of attempts to describe or prescribe grammar and reactions to those attempts and he mostly tells us about the ludicrous mis-statements and frustrated "oughts" and "musts." One grammarian declared in 1762 that "because" was obsolete, and that grammarian is so wrong about that, says Hitchings, how can he be right to try to standardize spelling and encourage us all to avoid double negatives? There's a name for that illogical assumption but I forget what it is.
I did not know that Joseph Priestly had written a grammar book but as Hitchings implies, why would you listen to a guy who initially called oxygen "dephlogisticated air." Why indeed. He addresses rapidly diverging English English and American English, first mentioned in print in 1663 when it was pointed out that an "ordinary" in America was a tavern whereas in England it was an inn. Things deteriorated from there.
Hitchings is alert for the inconsistencies of people and institutions who/that have taken a position on the descriptive/prescriptive scale. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, was responsible for untold cases of apoplexy when it came out some years ago with a very lax descriptive edition. If a lot of people use "ain't" then "ain't" is an acceptable word. Here's Hitchings' comment:
". . . it is striking that the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary are responsible for a book with the title 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces. Examples include acumen, chimera and niche. If 'almost everyone' mispronounces them, it follows that almost no one pronounces them 'correctly', so perhaps the supposedly correct pronunciations are close to becoming obsolete." You will be relieved to know that I pronounce them correctly.
Personally, I cringe when people use "whom" when the correct usage (at least for the moment) is "who." When they use "who" for "whom" I don't really care. I answer the phone, "This is she," which usually gets me a moment of silence. I cling bitterly to the difference between lie and lay and a couple of other lost causes, but on the whole I welcome new words from wherever they come (I would be mute without "download," "delta function," "skoch," and "binary.")
But there IS an argument for retaining small distinctions. When "shall" and "will" are interchangeable, "hopefully" is thrown about recklessly, and almost anything can be described as "awesome," we lose subtlety and are less able to communicate fine distinctions. Unfortunately, there are fewer of us trying to do so all the time.