I’m still trying to read more nonfiction in spite of my disastrous attempt at reading a memoir last week. So, I decided to spend the first week of the Trump Administration reading about the other thing we use to judge people on Facebook: grammar. Well, more like the idea of what “proper English” is, but grammar is a nice catch-all term for that sort of thing.
Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park isn’t a history of English; it’s a history of the rules of English. I’m pretty damn lawful good so I have a thing for learning about rules. However, the book isn’t dry at all. Lynch imbues a lot of humor into what could easily have been a humorless topic. Language nerds of all kinds should find this to be a fun read.
Each chapter stands on its own, covering things like Samuel Johnson trying to bring our chaotic language to heel and why English doesn’t have an academy to control it like French does. It made the book easy to pick up and put down over the course of my week.
Prescriptivists—lawful good grammarians like me who are sticklers for the rules—will enjoy learning about the origins of certain grammatical conventions. The prohibition on splitting infinitives? That comes from Latin. (So many of the rules you hated learning come from Latin.) Descriptivists—the chaotic good students of language who believe that language is defined by how people choose to use it—will take comfort in the fact that they’re probably on the right side of history.
But some things are sacred. If you can’t get they’re/their/there straight, I’m still going to judge you.
Previously in this series: