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THE LANGUAGE WARS by Henry Hitchings


A History of Proper English

by Henry Hitchings

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-18329-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Caring about the propriety and properness of language is so gay.

Those are fighting words. In fact, there are fighting words in just about every utterance we make. But, observes Evening Standard theater critic Hitchings (The Secret Life of Words, 2008, etc.), some words are fighting-er than others. “When I was younger,” he writes (the author was born in 1974), “one of the most common complaints I heard about any aspect of the English language was the change in the use of the word gay.” No longer a word meaning “merry” among the oldsters, “gay” had come to mean something else—though it had come to mean that something else well before World War II and had just taken time to catch up. “Experience suggests”—not “past experience,” which is redundant—“that you can always start a row by staking a claim about English usage,” he writes. And he’s right. Go around insisting that “data” must be always a plural, agreeing with the plural verb form—“the data are convincing”—and you’ll wind up with a mouthful of loose teeth one day; go around using “gay” flippantly, and you’ll be branded as incorrect and worse. But proscriptive and prescriptive grammarians have been with us always, or at least since the Georgian age, when Britons seemed very ill at ease speaking their mother tongue and a catastrophic social faux pas was always only a syllable away. Hitchings is good on the history of that dis-ease, and though he lacks the zest of some of the old-timey word writers, from Edwin Newman to the sainted H.L. Mencken, he acquits himself well on the use, misuse, disuse and abuse of English grammar over the centuries.

The Miss Grundy grammarians in the crowd may not always like Hitchings’ line of argument, which some will find shockingly permissive because realistic. But word lovers will.