The author of numerous works about the history and uses of English returns with a brief, illuminating disquisition on the history and varied tasks of the verb “to be.”
That little buzzing verb is a word we employ in myriads of ways for myriads of reasons, from the “existential” to the “ludic”—and more. In this concise and clear account, Crystal (Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, 2017, etc.) fashions an unusual chapter organization: a description of the usage, many historical examples (Shakespeare and the Bible are prominent), some cartoons from Punch (and some created especially for this volume by cartoonist Ed McLachlan), and an occasional panel (Crystal’s term) that focuses on a related topic—e.g., the imperative form. The author’s cadre of readers will know that he is no prescriptivist. In his section on the expression “woe is me,” he emits a tiny snarl at the prescriptive approach, noting the insistence of some on “woe is I.” Nor does Crystal tear his hair or claw his face when dealing with slang and the language of texting (“textese,” he calls it). As a descriptivist, the author recognizes that railing against usage is generally pointless—grammar and usage move on (ain’t was once “correct,” he notes)—and reminds us that earlier “telegraph” generations dealt with “telegramese.” He also traces the history of each usage—many go back to Anglo-Saxon—and shows how time has, or has not, altered it. His examples range wide and include Hamlet, popular song, newspaper headlines, and novels by Dickens and Thackeray. He does not neglect former President Bill Clinton’s comment, during his sex-scandal testimony, about how “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is.” And so it does.
Language lessons from a master delivered masterfully: Crystal-clear.