A celebrated historian of the English language takes us on an entertaining stroll through the history of our grammar—from the beginning to last week.
As prolific as he is knowledgeable about our language, Crystal has written with erudition and wit about subjects as varied as the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English (The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, 2016) and the language’s odd spelling (Spell It Out, 2013). Here, the author has several related intents: to explain what grammar is (and isn’t), provide a history of our grammar, illustrate some common grammatical issues, show the varieties of English, chide (gently) our many unyielding prescriptivists (he does call them “pedants” a couple of times), and make general recommendations about the teaching and testing of grammar. The chapters are brief and tightly focused, many followed by an interlude that deals with a specific issue that lies, only slightly, outside the text—e.g., the ways we pluralize our nouns and some stories of the earliest grammarians. Crystal’s prose is generally light and accessible, though there are times (see the chapter about the evolution of English from Old to today) when his diction and discussion could dissuade the timorous. Some fussy readers may be surprised (or pleased?) to see his use of “mindset” and “refers back,” but he displays a similar joy in “catching” some recent grammar and usage absolutists who commit the very errors they condemn. Throughout, the author is a gifted, agile, and amusing teacher, traits we see in his passages about how it would go if we were able to chat with Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. He also shows how prescriptive grammar rose and fell, replaced by descriptive, and how much standardized grammar testing for youngsters is flawed.
Both a swift introduction for grammar rookies and an enlightening review and update for the veterans.