AMERICAN TONGUE AND CHEEK: A Populist Guide to Our Language by Jim Quinn

AMERICAN TONGUE AND CHEEK: A Populist Guide to Our Language

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A half-persuasive, tediously snide harangue against ""pop grammarians"" like Edwin Newman, John Simon, Wilson Follett (Modern American Usage), and Theodore Bernstein (Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage)--all those ""faddish know-nothings."" What does Quinn know that they don't? The history of language and usage (thanks chiefly to the O.E.D.), that's what. So this repetitious, disorganized little book consists largely of Quinn quoting the prohibitions of the ""pop grammarians"" and then proving, mostly via precedent, that the supposed infractions attacked by Newman et al. are really quite all right. Some of this makes sense. Much of this doesn't--as when, for instance, Quinn poohpoohs Newman's objections to ""real super"" by reminding us that a character in David Copperfield (an obsequious tailor) describes the quality of cloth as ""extra super""; or when he defends ""between you and I"" by reference to usage circa 1600. Likewise, Quinn's other principal premise--a linguistic, free-for-all approach to Standard English (""the only sensible standard of correctness is usage by ordinary people"")--sounds attractively populist in the abstract but goes sadly astray in most of the applications here. Quinn's defense of black vernacular is muddily argued and ends with a saccharine cop-out (black kids do need Standard English, but let's teach it with ""humanity""); his defense of white vernacular is ludicrous, sentimentally equating bad grammar with creativity, poetry, and free souls. And, crucially, Quinn never sees language in its different contexts, preferring to oversimplify grossly. . . and to go on for pages and pages about the merits of (yawn) ""hopefully."" Some interesting research, some well-pointed, if unnecessarily obnoxious, attacks (William Satire and Bergen Evans receive kinder words)--but Quinn's apparent inability to draw distinctions of any kind makes it impossible to take him seriously except in scattered moments. Overall, then: nonstop nit-pickery with some reverse-snob appeal--occasionally amusing, mostly just annoying.

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 1980
Publisher: Pantheon