‘Bad English’ shows that some linguistics truths we hold dear aren’t really true at all

07/27/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

“Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation” by Ammon Shea (Perigee, 229 pages, $24)

We all have our language peeves, plus the rules we were taught in grade school, plus Strunk and White and whatever other usage guides we consult. And much of that is wrong.

Writing manuals and stylebooks are plagued by language “rules” that have no basis in English grammar, that fail to take into account the fact that living languages change, or that are someone’s “aggravations” that got codified, serving only to distinguish those in the know from the “barbarians.”

Author Ammon Shea, who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary over the course of a year (and then wrote a book about it, “Reading the OED”), must have seen while he was reading it how many of the linguistics truths we hold dear aren’t really true at all. Couple that with all the peevers that come out of the woodwork when the topic is grammar or usage (Shea has written a couple of other books on that as well), and there’s plenty of fodder for another book, hence the informative and entertaining “Bad English.”

The book directly takes on the peevers who believe that every “aggravate” meaning “irritate,” every vogue “verbed” noun, every “irregardless,” every split infinitive, every sentence-ending preposition, every sentence-starting conjunction is one more blow of the wrecking ball against our noble and pure English. And because Shea has done his homework – what better source is there than the OED on matters of English? – he’s not just counter-peeving, he’s backing up his assertions with research and facts, busting myths and correcting the correctors.

“One of the things that is most curious about people who hold themselves up as language purists,” Shea writes, “is that they seem to spend considerably more time complaining about language than they do celebrating it, much as if an art lover focused all their efforts on diatribes about the painter who were ruining the medium rather than the ones who were advancing it.” Yes, Shea used “their” as a singular on purpose.

Shea breaks his examinations down into words whose meanings have changed (many words, such as “decimate,” have had this happen more than once, and Shea’s explanation of the original original meaning of “decimate” isn’t the kill-every-10th-person sticklers would have us believe), words that are “not a word,” “verbed” nouns, grammatical gremlins, things that are “ruining the language,” and the arguments that people use to defend English. He ends up with a list of “221 Words That Were Once Frowned Upon,” from “accessorize” to “zoom,” which has some entries that will likely surprise you.

The book is a fun (yes, it’s fine to use “fun” as an adjective, despite that usage having been called “slovenly” as recently as 1980, Shea notes) look at how and why peeves develop, the history of various words and usages, and the ever-shifting nature of English. “Language has an irrepressible desire to change,” Shea points out, “and there are almost no words in English that have been around for more than a few hundred years without taking on new meanings, changing their old ones, or coming to simultaneously mean one thing and the opposite.”

Shea’s lively prose makes this book an enjoyable romp through the history of English while providing fodder against language alarmists. Anyone who can get the phrase “punctilious nitpickery” into print obviously has both a love of language and a sense of humor.

But he does go a little overboard: He’s quite harsh on Orwell’s classic “six language rules,” focusing on the letter of the rules (and the fact that Orwell himself breaks them frequently) rather than their spirit, which allows much more flexibility. He doesn’t have a lot of patience with those who dictate language use – referring to “screeds” by “language scolds” – which is understandable, but he doesn’t really distinguish between the priggish prescriptivists and the people whose job it is to produce professional communication for a mass audience.

As an editor, I recognize that language is a living, changing entity and that obsolete rules, rules that aren’t rules and distinctions that are simply “secret handshakes” do no one any good. I also know that language needs to follow some standards in order to effectively and credibly communicate. “Bad English” is a great tool for arguing against the non-rules and shibboleths, but not every rule is bogus, and not every guideline is repressive or worthless. For the sake of clarity in communication, there need to be common standards – but they need to exist for the sake of clarity, not for the sake of barring words or usages some “purists” don’t like.

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