The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of Proper English, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Jack Lynch

Hardcover, 2009

Library's rating

Library's review

Bad grammar drives me crazy. Bad spelling, too. (To say nothing of fragmentary sentences. Ahem.) There's a reason my AIM handle is grammrdiva (and yes, the misspelling was intentional). I'm not going to lie: I make tiny, (mostly) internal judgments about people who unintentionally misuse language. And I do so even though I know I am far from perfect myself. I have a whole host of bad habits that a lifetime's worth of writing and editing for a living have yet to shake. And I fully expect to be judged by them, too.

And yet, I sit before you today a (slightly) reformed critic, thanks to The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch. Lynch has written an eminently readable review of the ever-changing English language. Maybe it's my bachelor's degree in history, but I found his core thesis compelling: English usage and spelling has been shifting constantly since the dawn of the language. The English we now think of as "correct" has gotten that way through popular usage, and not because of any inherent rightness or royal proclamation.

Which is not to say that myriad people have not tried to dictate to the masses about how they should speak and write — heavens, how they have tried! Lexicographer's Dilemma is organized nicely, with chapters examining successive eras in the war against 'improper' English. The cumulative effect of reading about all of the smoke-shoveling (as Oliver Wendell Holmes might have termed it) was a metaphorical throwing up of my hands. Maybe Lynch is right, and the only thing that matters is whether we understand the meaning of what someone says or writes, and not whether the speaker/writer used the proper verb conjugation or commonly accepted spelling.

In fact, Lynch has a lot to say about the futility of prescriptivists (such being the term for linguists who think matters of language and grammar are a black-and-white affair). It's clear he is much more at home in the gray area occupied by descriptivists (who are more interested simply in documenting how people are actually using language, regardless of 'right' or 'wrong'). After a few chapters, I found myself agreeing with him, which frankly came as a relief. Single-handedly upholding the standards of good and proper English is exhausting, you know.

And as long as I stay away from Internet message boards (LibraryThing's Talk excepted) and protesters' signs at political rallies, my blood pressure should be just fine.
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What does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Lynch has discovered every rule of English usage has a human history, and makes sense only in a historical context. They're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change.

Media reviews

... an entertaining tour of the English language ... ... spends a good deal of time on the evolution of dictionaries ... ... throughout this very readable book he makes clear that he thinks the grammar scolds need to shut up, or at least tone it down ...


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