s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Books: The Fight for English

Friday, November 14, 2008

Books: The Fight for English

I love this book. I want to make all of my prescriptivist friends read it. (And I want to throw it at my prescriptivist enemies.)

The full name of David Crystal's book is The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left and although the subtitle does spoof Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, his target is not so much her book, but the more general attitude of "zero-tolerance" linguistic prescriptivism.

The Fight for English is a humorous look at the history of the English language and of English-language prescriptivism. He starts when English was still very subordinate to Latin as the language of the educated, continues as it was subordinated again with the Norman invasion, then traces its eventual rise in literary prominence, together with the rise of language "experts" who continually make dire predictions about the future of the language if some grammatical pet peeve is not stamped out of existence.

David Crystal is no fool. He's written, edited, or contributed to over 200 publications, so he's pretty clear on the need for good editing and proofreading and he agrees that good writing should be elegant and precise. However, he takes issue with people who claim to support those same things, but then get fixated on nit-picky, invented rules which don't serve those ends.

Crystal takes aim at a number of prescriptivist mantras, including ending sentences with a preposition, split infinitives, and conflating "will" and "shall." He crushes the arguments for maintaining such silly rules by demonstrating that (1) most "offensive" constructions have a very long history in the language (thus negating the argument that they are recent corruptions which must be stamped out if the language is to be kept "pure"), (2) they are skilfully used by some of the greatest writers in the English language (which addresses the claim that the constructions are base or sloppy), and (3) in one memorable occasion, actually demonstrates that not splitting an infinitive results in prose which is convoluted and ambiguous in meaning. (One thing he doesn't do as much is get into the deep syntax behind "wrong" constructions to explain the linguistics and cognitive mechanics behind them. If that's more your cup of tea, please visit the Language Log.)

In the last few chapters, Crystal delves into modern usage and prescriptivism from a particularly British perspective, which American readers may not find as relevant. (E.g. "Who knows who first changed the stress from 'controversy' to 'controversy'?" A: No one, on my side of the pond.) However, the book as a whole is a delightful romp through the history of natural language change and those who respond to it by proclaiming that the sky is falling.


At November 15, 2008 12:22 AM, Blogger Redoubt said...

Sometimes, much to my chagrin, it's impossible not to end a sentence with a preposition. I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but you know. It's happened to me before.

At November 15, 2008 12:23 AM, Blogger erin said...

I'm a prescriptivist. Most of the time. So sue me. :)

At November 15, 2008 12:57 AM, Blogger Optimistic. said...

Man, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves really bugged me. I'm glad someone else felt the same way.

At November 16, 2008 3:00 PM, Blogger Katya said...

redoubt - Are you sure it was a preposition and not a particle? Sometimes they look the same, but particles don't have objects, so they often have to go at the end.

erin - Well, you're definitely in the "friend" and "good editor" categories, not the "enemy" and "crazy lunatic" ones. ;)

optimistic. - Excellent! We can join together and — dare I say it? — rule the world!

At November 17, 2008 7:55 PM, Blogger Th. said...


Sounds like something to add to the list.


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