Ammon Shea’s Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation is a collection of tiny essays on dozens and dozens of supposed grammar and usage errors in English. In every case, Shea finds a writer who decries the usage (like “hopefully” to mean “I hope that”) then asks a simple question: why is this wrong? He then generally goes on to show that the rule against the given usage is baseless, silly, or both. Shea is witty and entertaining, and he gets language. But I found the book exhausting—because just as language pedants get exasperated at the ignorance of the dark forces of linguistic evil, I get exasperated at language pedants for never—ever, ever, never, ever—stopping to ask themselves what the true standard of correct English is and how we are to access it. (I get exasperated in part because I was one of those pedants.)
I keep trying to argue on this blog that all this language stuff, even if it’s limited to English, matters a great deal for Bible interpretation. If you are constantly (even if silently) correcting other people’s English errors, you need this book. If you think English reached its height in 1611, you need this book. If you assume that words always mean what they used to mean, you need this book. Usage determines meaning, and I find that it takes a lot of examples of this principle at work before people can be converted to this truth. You won’t find more examples more entertainingly discussed anywhere that I know of.
These quotes are gold:
According to those who sit up at night worrying about the state of our language, English has been headed to hell in a hand basket for a very long time. From the stubborn continuity of English, however, it seems clear that either (a) we are in an exceedingly slow hand basket or (b) the language will not break, no matter how willfully we mistreat it. (ix-x)
There are two things that have remained constant: The English language continues to change and a large number of people wish that it would not. (x)
I think it delightful that language can engender such passion. At the same time, I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful. I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they “care about language,” which to me is simply a polite way of saying “I like to correct the language use of other people.” We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares. (xiii)
English is the official language of England, unsurprisingly enough (although it was French for several hundred years). The United States, to the chagrin of many who would have it otherwise, has no official language. And there has never been an official governing body for the English language. For many people who think that English requires nightly baths and strict supervision, this is the linguistic equivalent of raising a child on a steady diet of potato chips and cupcakes, giving them no curfew, and always telling them that they are special, no matter what. (174)
Enlightening discussions on Shakespeare’s language (partially debunking the idea that he invented umpteen thousands words) and George Orwell’s rules for writing (all of which he broke, flagrantly) are followed by an appendix listing 221 words that were “once frowned upon,” words we use all the time without knowing that someone once thought we were supposed to frown while using them.