Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation

by Oct 20, 2014Culture, Linguistics3 comments

bad englishAmmon 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)

So true:

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)

Nota Bene:

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.

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  1. Brian Collins

    Is language immune to the Fall? If not, in what ways may it be fallen?

    • Mark Ward

      Hey, stop asking me that question! I don’t know yet. =)

      None of my “usage determines meaning” talk means that you can talk any way you want in any situation. It means you have freedom to judge your situation and choose the appropriate social register for your language; you don’t have to sound formally correct all the time. In fact, you shouldn’t. If language itself is fallen rather than the users of language, I’m not sure what that even means… But if it is fallen, it’s fallenness does not show up in the usages Shea defends in this book. There are no good reasons for the strictures Shea undermines, like rules against “hopefully,” against ending a sentence with a preposition, using “impact” or “contact” as verbs, etc., etc. But I confess I don’t know how to apply CFR to language. I’m tempted to say that communication, not language, is fallen.

  2. Layton Talbert

    If English is headed to hell in a hand basket then English, at least, must be fallen.

    But after several seconds of thoughtful consideration, I’m inclined to agree with Mark–communication (which is endemic to humanity) is fallen (or prone to fallenness, which would seem to suggest it can also be redeemed), not language per se (which merely provides the tools for communication and is driven by the communicator). According to OED, language is a “system of communication … typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactical structure.” If I’m thinking correctly, words are the principal tools of a language with which the communicator constructs a message. Parallels to language (i.e., the words of which language consists) might be something like musical notation (the tools for musical communication), or the implements of an artist which he uses to communicate a message that reflects either fallen or redemptive values.

    Has anyone done a BT of language/communication?