Entertainingly executed with a near-erotic passion for language.




The author of The Unfolding of Language (2005) returns to address questions about how our languages shape our perceptions and ideas.

Deutscher enjoys himself in this romp through research and theory. Although Hebrew is his native language, he uses English artfully—and playfully—to make points, provide examples and slay sacred cattle, nowhere more entertainingly than in his systematic dispelling of the airy theories of American linguist Benjamin Whorf, who argued (but could not prove) that languages prevent their speakers from having certain thoughts. Deutscher begins by showing that the nature-vs.-nurture argument, though it has long raged in his discipline, is a straw dog—the reality is that nature and nurture shape language. To illustrate, he examines three major concepts: color (why are Homer’s color descriptions so odd?), orientation (some languages identify locations that are egocentric, others geocentric, others both) and gender (some languages employ gender heavily, others little or not at all). The author swiftly summarizes the theory and research in each area, then shows that for each, current thinking seems to have settled on a fundamental principle: “culture enjoys freedom within restraints.” He does not accept the notion of “universal grammar” fiercely advanced by Noam Chomsky, nor does he believe that culture determines all. He also takes Steven Pinker to task, declaring that his “facts are hardly quibbleable with [but] his environmental determinism is unconvincing.” Of great interest is Deutscher’s explanation of Guugu Yimithirr, the language of the Australian aboriginal tribe that contributed kangaroo to English. Guugu Yimithirr is completely geocentric in its orientation, meaning that speakers offer even the simplest of directions with compass references, not with personal ones—i.e., the chair is not on your left; it is in the northwest corner of the room. Deutscher also writes about how all languages are manifestly not equally complex, about what sorts of information a language compels its speakers to communicate (verb tenses in English) and about how gendered nouns can supply poets with richer metaphors.

Entertainingly executed with a near-erotic passion for language.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-8050-8195-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2010

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Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.


New York Times columnist and editorial board member delivers a slim book for aspiring writers, offering saws and sense, wisdom and waggery, biases and biting sarcasm.

Klinkenborg (Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, 2006), who’s taught for decades, endeavors to keep things simple in his prose, and he urges other writers to do the same. (Note: He despises abuses of the word as, as he continually reminds readers.) In the early sections, the author ignores traditional paragraphing so that the text resembles a long free-verse poem. He urges readers to use short, clear sentences and to make sure each one is healthy before moving on; notes that it’s acceptable to start sentences with and and but; sees benefits in diagramming sentences; stresses that all writing is revision; periodically blasts the formulaic writing that many (most?) students learn in school; argues that knowing where you’re headed before you begin might be good for a vacation, but not for a piece of writing; and believes that writers must trust readers more, and trust themselves. Most of Klinkenborg’s advice is neither radical nor especially profound (“Turn to the poets. / Learn from them”), and the text suffers from a corrosive fallacy: that if his strategies work for him they will work for all. The final fifth of the text includes some passages from writers he admires (McPhee, Oates, Cheever) and some of his students’ awkward sentences, which he treats analytically but sometimes with a surprising sarcasm that veers near meanness. He includes examples of students’ dangling modifiers, malapropisms, errors of pronoun agreement, wordiness and other mistakes.

Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-26634-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...



Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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