Book Review: Speech Crimes

From the New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007


Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists” — those who’d rap your knuckles for using “snuck” versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn’t nearly as great as it’s made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse,” is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe “slud,” as in “Rizzuto slud into second”).

If you’re old enough to have learned the parts of speech in school, you probably think of them as written in stone. Not so. The nine categories are arbitrary and shifting. Nouns get verbed, adjectives get nouned, prepositions can moonlight as almost anything. Yagoda, who teaches English at the University of Delaware, agrees that the categories are artificial, but he’s smitten with them anyway. Each member of the “baseball-team-sized list” (adj., adv., art., conj., int., n., prep., pron. and v.) gets its own chapter. Don’t overlook the surprisingly entertaining one on conjunctions — yes, conjunctions — with its riffs on the ampersand (“the more ampersands in the credits, the crummier the movie”) and the art of “ ‘but’ management.” No word is too humble for Yagoda, who can get lexically aroused by the likes of “a” and “the.”

He sticks up for the two parts of speech that authors of writing manuals dump on most: adverbs and adjectives. (His title comes from a slur attributed to Mark Twain.) He also defends things that drive wordies crazy, like the adjective “fun” and the verb phrase “try and.” He admires the “salutarily emphatic redundancy,” as in “ ‘Raid Kills Bugs Dead’ (written by the Beat poet Lew Welch in a stint as an adman).”

While some things bug Yagoda (he despises “enthuse,” for example), he has a healthy skepticism toward language extremists. The rule-bound sticklers leave no room for change, and the descriptivists are inconsistent: they sneer at Miss Grundy, “yet in their own writing follow all the traditional rules.”

One might make the same complaint about Yagoda. He says it’s time we embraced “they,” “them” and “their” as sexless singular pronouns (as in “Who lost their lunch?”). Sure, Ben. Then why don’t you use them yourself?

David Crystal, on the other hand, has the courage of his convictions. You’ll find sexless pronouns and more in “The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left,” his survey of the 500-year-old crusade for correctness in English. By and large, he’s against it — not the correctness so much as the crusade.

His subtitle is an allusion to Lynne Truss’s best seller “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” and his subject is “the whole genre of books which that book represents.” His beef isn’t with standards for punctuation or other rules; he doesn’t believe that anything goes. It’s with a “zero tolerance” attitude better suited to “crime prevention and political extremism.” Crystal, an eminent British linguist and the author of “The Stories of English,” “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language” and about 100 other books, manages to be genial and irascible at the same time. He acknowledges that the emergence of standards is natural. It’s the umpires he can’t abide. He sees them as “self-appointed language watchdogs” with a “social agenda”: to promote the interests of the ruling classes and make the proles feel bad. He then lumps together just about everyone from Johnson and Swift to Fowler and Strunk as enemies of linguistic tolerance and diversity.

He sees spelling, grammar and pronunciation as battles in a kind of class war. In one camp are the descriptivists, academic linguists like himself. In the other are the prescriptivists, politically incorrect language cops. There are two points to be made here. First, this is not a class issue. Fowler, who was more interested in puncturing pomposity than in oppressing the underclass, would have snorted at the notion that he was elitist. The worst crimes against English are committed not by the underprivileged but by bureaucrats in academia, government and business.

Second, Lynne Truss aside, most writers on usage today agree with Crystal on the big issues: Change is inevitable. People don’t talk the way they write. Dialects are the life of the language. The sillier “rules” of grammar were just stupid misunderstandings. Now can we dispense with the labels? Usage guides have their uses. Since language is forever changing, it’s nice to be able to look up a word and see how most people currently use it, spell it and say it.

When he’s not being cranky, Crystal is fascinating and insightful, often funny. He’s especially good on the Middle Ages. When printing came to Britain in 1476, English was a merry old mess. Choices had to be made, he says, and typesetters were often the ones making them. “If a line of type was a bit short on the page, well, just add an -e to a few words.” And if it was too long? Just “take out some e’s.”

Latin scholars, meanwhile, tried to help by adding silent letters to show where words came from. Thus “debt” acquired its “b” (from the Latin debitum), “island” its “s” (from insula) and “people” its “o” (from populus). Thanks, fellas.
Much as I admire both Crystal and Yagoda, I can’t believe the singular “they” will become accepted in educated writing in our lifetime. Of course, I could be wrong. In the words of Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

Patricia T. O’Conner is the author of “Woe Is I” and other books on language. “Woe Is I Jr.,” a children’s book, will be published in May.