Words matter. While most readers of this magazine would agree with that basic statement, our current president seems to be unfamiliar with that truth, and it seems he has plenty of fellow bunglers in his circle. In the face of the administration’s daily assault on intelligible English, and given that effective communication is a fundamental element of our humanity, the study of language is perhaps more important than ever.
For decades, British linguist and author David Crystal has investigated nearly every aspect of the history and development of the English language, authoring or editing more than 100 books on the subject, including The Stories of English, How Language Works, and Spell It Out. The author’s latest two books were published simultaneously in the U.S. by Oxford University Press.
Making Sense leads readers through the often thorny landscape of grammar as Crystal narrates an accessible history and provides plenty of illustrative examples. In tight, easy-to-follow chapters, the author, our reviewer wrote, “shows how prescriptive grammar rose and fell, replaced by descriptive, and how much standardized grammar testing for youngsters is flawed.” Another winner from Crystal, this is “a swift introduction for grammar rookies and an enlightening review and update for the veterans.”
In a similar breezy-yet-authoritative style, The Story of Be is an “illuminating disquisition on the history and varied tasks of the verb ‘to be.’ ” As our reviewer notes, Crystal “recognizes that railing against usage is generally pointless—grammar and usage move on (ain’t was once ‘correct,’ he notes).” It’s that stance against prescriptivism that I find most appealing. The author never dumbs it down, but he is necessarily accommodating in his wide-ranging explorations of the fluidity of the English language. The Story of Be, our reviewer said, is a book of “language lessons from a master delivered masterfully.” The same could be said of most of his books. Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.