The one-sentence summary
We need to engage with language more – thinking and talking about it in a more effective way.
- This book unpacks how the history of ‘proper’ English came about. It looks at grammar rules, regional accents, swearing, spelling, dictionaries, political correctness and the role of electronic media in reshaping language.
- People get angry about English, arguing about slang, abbreviations, buzzwords (itself a buzzword?), vocabulary imported from other languages, the abuse of apostrophes, and the mistakes of public figures who ‘ought to know better’.
- But people have always worried about the state of English, from Chaucer through to Dickens and Shakespeare to the modern day.
- Rules are a sort of armour, and yet rule-makers miss out on the dynamism of speech. Rules are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words in helpful arrangements so we can be understood.
- The author is not arguing that there should be no norms or rules, just that we ought to think beyond tradition, habit and deference, and to consider what we want from our words.
- We need to engage with language – we tend to discuss it in a cantankerous or petulant way, but thinking and talking about it should be a pleasure.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- This is a series of 28 pithy essays that guide us through the history of our language, from slang and spelling to text messaging.
- Given the recent rise of English as the world’s default internet language, it is important that we look at it carefully and understand it.
- We all have our pet hates, but these start to look rather foolish if you take the long view.
- Jonathan Swift hated the words ‘mob’ and ‘banter’. Dr. Johnson hated ‘trait’ and ‘ruse’, mainly because they were French in origin. Not long ago ‘mileage’ and ‘hindsight’ were regarded as awful Americanisms. Things move on.
- Complaints about English are as old as the hills, based on no linguistic logic and fairly futile, since no one can stop language from evolving, and it is healthy that it does.
- The reader can either regard this as a call to arms, or just a pleasant ramble through the vagaries of our strange language.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- It is fairly long and very detailed, and so is not for the faint-hearted. However, being broken down into 28 essays, it can be cherry-picked.