This deceptively lightweight book should be compulsory reading for every obsessive pedant and equally for those who take a totally laissez faire approach to usage. And in fact, everyone else. It is not an obscure reference work, but a good overview that is accessible to a general audience. For a slightly more academic approach, consider Henry Hitchings' "The Language Wars" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/164021595).
David Crystal, a respected linguistics professor, cares about rules and grammar (and has written grammar guides), but he cares far more about meaning, comprehension and effect.
He explains the history (and future) of the English language, especially in its written form, in lots of short chapters. It is anecdotal, rather than academic, though it has plenty of facts and references to sources as well.
Our language is a melting pot, not a salad bowl, and language change is inevitable. It has been complained about since Chaucer’s time, yet we still have great writers. Crystal concludes that we shouldn't panic about it and that understanding appropriateness is paramount.
Knowing how an engine works does not make you a good driver: you need a feel for the medium and situation as well. Consequently, he pleads for discernment in applying rules; appropriateness and context are recurring themes. The purpose of grammar is for words to make sense; it isn’t an end in itself.
There are some intriguing slants on familiar debates. Crystal suggests one reason we are drawn to splitting infinitives is the more natural (iambic) rhythm that can result. (“To boldly go” is weak-strong-weak-strong, but “to go boldly” is weak-strong-strong-weak) He also gives examples where it changes the meaning (“He completely failed to understand” and “He failed to completely understand.”).
Crystal argues that standard English is important so that people from different groups and regions can understand each other, but that non-standard dialects are important for diversity and for group identity. We wear different clothes for different situations and similarly we use different language. Prescriptivists are too fond of “always” and “never”, ignoring context. They are so afraid of ambiguity they seek it where context means it doesn’t exist, and then they apply rules blindly, without exception. He even suggests some of them were so bullied by strict grammarians that they developed Stockholm Syndrome!
That intriguing hyperbole aside, I agree with almost every word in this well-balanced book and can’t recommend it enough.
POTTED HISTORY AND RANDOM THOUGHTS FROM THE BOOK:
The written word requires overt teaching in a way that speech does not. It also requires a degree of standardisation because there are no cues of intonation and body language and recipient cannot indicate if they do not understand.
In many cases we have the richness of triplets of subtly different words from Saxon, French and Latin (ask, question, interrogate and rest, remainder, residue).
Why do we worry about neologisms when Shakespeare coined 1,700 words?
The first serious attempts at standardisation came with the printing press in 1476. There were no dictionaries, local spelling varied hugely (partly because of differing accents), and many of Caxton’s typesetters were Dutch (inserting “gh” in words such as “ghost”), so plenty of inconsistencies slipped through.
Many of the other silent letters in English were added to help people by indication the Latin route (e.g. “det” became “debt” from “debitum”).
In 1664, there was a possibility of an English Academy (along the lines of Académie française), supported by Dryden and Defoe. The Inkhorn Debate (against excessively long Latinate and Greek words) and the Great Vowel Shift get their fair share of space.
Johnson’s wasn’t the first dictionary, but it was a milestone in comprehensiveness and the fact it included quotations as examples.
Spelling is not immutable. Dr Johnson’s dictionary of ~250 years ago includes many spellings that are completely unfamiliar today, and hyphenation changes too (Swift wrote “now a-days”).
Usage changes, even at a fundamental level. For example, Dryden used double comparatives, such as “Contain your spirit in more stricter
The first usage guides appeared in the 18th century and these introduced many rules that bore little relation to English as it was used then (even in literate circles) and which persist today. Often they were extrapolations of Latin grammar that had no relevance to English. The obvious example is the rule about not splitting infinitives because it’s impossible to do so in Latin (each is a single word) although that wasn’t banned till the 19th century. The ban on ending a sentence with a preposition comes from the fact that pre-positions were positioned before nouns. Additional motivation for such rules was to distinguish “polite” speech from “impolite”.
Punctuation was largely ignored by dictionaries and usage guides till recently, but is still prone to fashion (e.g. Dickens’ use of semi colons).
For possessive “its” lacking an apostrophe (along with “his” and “hers”), Crystal blames 18th century printers who applied the new rule to nouns but forgot to apply it to pronouns.
Webster deliberately changed American spelling, partly to simplify it, but explicitly to distinguish it from the language of the former colonial power: "As an independent nation, our honour requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain should no longer be OUR standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline." (I don't think that quotation is in this book, but it's relevant for this review.)
96% of the UK population has a regional accent, yet in WW2 people complained they couldn’t believe the news when it was read by someone with a regional accent.
The title, cover and introduction imply this is largely a response to Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23329062), but it’s much broader, though she gets many mentions. He was a collaborator on the radio series that spawned her book and he praises and condemns her by turns. Crystal’s main objection is the concept of zero tolerance.