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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language [Paperback]

Patricia T. O'Conner , Stewart Kellerman
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 24, 2010 0812978102 978-0812978100 Reprint
Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces “niche” as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with “and”? Do you think British spellings are more “civilised” than the American versions? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re myth-informed. 

    In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman reveal why some of grammar’s best-known “rules” aren’t—and never were—rules at all. This playfully witty, rigorously researched book sets the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony français, fake acronyms, and more. Here are some shockers: “They” was once commonly used for both singular and plural, much the way “you” is today. And an eighteenth-century female grammarian, of all people, is largely responsible for the all-purpose “he.” From the Queen’s English to street slang, this eye-opening romp will be the toast of grammarphiles and the salvation of grammarphobes. Take our word for it.

Frequently Bought Together

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language + Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition + Words Fail  Me: What Everyone Who Writes     Should Know about Writing
Price for all three: $33.99

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bestselling word maven O'Conner (Woe Is I) is that rare grammarian who values clear, natural expression over the mindless application of rules. In her latest compendium, she debunks the hoariest of false strictures, many of them concocted by evil latter-day pedants seeking to bind the supple English tongue with the fetters of Latinate grammar. A preposition, she proclaims, is a fine thing to end a sentence with. To deftly split an infinitive is no crime to her. And starting a sentence with a conjunction gets her approval, as well as Shakespeare's. Other misconceptions she targets include the idea that woman has a sexist etymology and that the British speak a purer form of English than do Americans,. Ranging through the history of English from Beowulf to the latest neologisms, the author accepts change in a democratic spirit; proper English, she contends, is what the majority of us say it is (though she can't resist making a traditionalist plea to preserve favored words like unique and ironic from corruption). Writers will appreciate O'Conner's liberating, common-sense approach to the language, and readers the entertaining sprightliness of her prose. (May 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Inspired by answering language questions on talk radio and through email, journalists and grammar book authors O'Conner and Kellerman keep explaining the English language in ten topical chapters. While some grammar and etymology questions are familiar, other topics are happily fresh. An example of this is the first chapter, which considers authenticity, namely, whether American or British English retained more original vocabulary and pronunciation. Skillfully drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary and other research tools, the writers always present conversational prose with different kinds of wordplays. For instance, regarding using pronouns, they write, "But one word is missing…the word that I would have used instead of 'he or she' in the last sentence." Because the work aims to explain even more than guide, it emphasizes historical background more than other recently published books such as June Casagrande's Mortal Syntax and Paul Yeager's Literally, the Best Language Book Ever. With an accessible tone and full of information, this work is recommended for public libraries.—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812978102
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812978100
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.2 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #624,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, has written five books about the English language--the bestselling Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English; Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (with Stewart Kellerman); Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing; Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English; and You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online (with Stewart Kellerman).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific on all counts May 11, 2009
Format:Hardcover
Another great offering from my favorite grammar maven, once again teaming up with her husband Stewart. The writing, as one expects from this duo, proceeds apace with wit and insight, dispelling a myth here and granting permission there. I was so relieved to know that I can split my infinitives at will and end my sentences with a preposition - and that I am in superbly historic linguistic company when I do. The word and phrase origins are fascinating. I guarantee this one will settle more than a few late night arguments - best to keep it right by the bed - or behind the bar.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best for language mavens May 23, 2009
Format:Hardcover
If you love language, you won't find a better guide through the twisting alleys of English than Pat O'Conner. Since her first book, Woe Is I, through the current Origins of the Specious, Pat never fails to write fascinating and fun examinations of the English language. With a keen eye for the aspects of grammar, usage, and syntax that are most interesting, she points out little-known facts and etymologies of how we speak, and why we speak the way we do. And Pat is no stuffy grammarian, insisting that the old usages be maintained if they don't serve us well to communicate clearly. In this book, she debunks so many misused word, phrases, and idioms, some of which have commonly-believed origins which she explains, as well as misconceptions about usage, in particular the way some grammarians have tried to adhere to Latin grammar only to increase confusion and frustration about proper English usage. If you have an interest in language, get a hold of this book. And while you're at it, you might as well get her other books - after reading one, you'll certainly become an O'Connerophile.
(Note: it's mentioned at the beginning of the book that both Pat and her husband, Stewart Kellerman, wrote it together, but that for purposes of clarity, they wrote it as if in Pat's voice alone. In that spirit, I've written this review addressing all comments to her. As I'm sure she would like, I want to say that all of this applies to Stewart as well.)
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bookmark This One May 9, 2009
Format:Hardcover
I am a fan of Woe is I, Updated and Expanded 3rd Edition: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain EnglishUpdated and Expanded 3rd Edition and Woe is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English but this book on language myths and misconceptions tops them both. It is so interesting and informative that I read it cover to cover in one sitting and have already gone back to some sections. How many words Eskimos really have for snow (p. 146) and how ivory towers got to campus from the Old Testament (p. 166) are two favorites. And I'm mentally bookmarking the nuanced history behind "call a spade a spade" (p. 126). It's a great example of the thoughtful way the rest of the book is written. Good reading!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars spot on April 6, 2010
Format:Hardcover
I'm not sure what it is about language that encourages so many urban legends and old wives tales. Perhaps it's because the scientific treatment of language (linguistics) has next-to-no influence in our schools or culture. Language is, instead, treated as much more of an art or craft. Unfortunately, that approach is much more open to myths and misconceptions than a more rigorous and scientific one.

O'Conner and Kellermen do a great job pointing out some of those legends and errors. Take, for example, split infinitives. They're natural to English and have been used by all the greats - Shakespeare, Milton, the King James Bible, et al.

So, where did the prohibition come from? Would you believe Latin? It's true. Some 18th Century grammarians got the novel idea of modeling English after Latin (which, as everyone knew back then, was the perfect language). And in Latin, it's impossible to split an infinitive - they're one word!

There's tons more - from beginning sentences with conjunctions to ending them with prepositions and everything in between - and all just as cockeyed and screwy.

There were two things I didn't like about this book. One, the authors pick and choose which rules they want to be scientific about and which they'd prefer to be "artistic" about. Seems like they've been able to put only one foot in the linguistic camp.

Second, the individual sections are all rather fourmulaic. They typically begin with some far-fetched connection, discuss the issue in depth, then end with some terrible pun. Here's an example of the last (on why the French are called "frogs," which has been tied to their habit of eating the same):

"I'm with Tidwell on the etymology, but I'm with Kermit the Frog on amphibian cuisine. It's not easy being green, If the French aren't sauteing you, the English are using to roast the French."
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not much new, and not particularly entertaining July 8, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I purchased this when a language newsletter I get recommended it. I like to support those who provide me with free goodies, so I clicked on his link and had it shipped immediately. I have read many books about language, and have subscribed to the erratically published Verbatim magazine for over 30 years. And therein lies the problem.

I hate to be the less-enthusiastic reviewer, but I was not overwhelmed at all by this light, small book. Most everything in here I have read elsewhere, in Verbatim and in the offerings of previous language writers, whether the pre-historic ancients like Fowler and Curme, mere antediluvian authors such as John Simon and Edwin Newman, or any of the more recent cranks. The brisk, pithy discussions, complete with a lame pun at the end of nearly every one, were just not very satisfying. (Maybe another manifestation of our short-attention span world; these little "chapters" were so brief I could hardly get involved.) For whatever reason, while the level of discourse sinks around us, where college graduates have never read an unassigned book and can barely write a coherent sentence, and one word beginning with f is the noun, verb, adjective, adverb in most conversation, the number of "The End Is Near, but It's Not So Bad" books seems to be increasing. Those of us watching the demise of something we love may buy these books (another endangered species) to help soothe our pain, but this provided little therapy. And her analysis is little more than listening to the masses. "Hopefully" is gonna happen, get used to it. Been used that way for a long time, is going to continue. Yeah, yeah.....the problems are much bigger than this.

Now, if you've never read anything on language, you may find this informative. I didn't. I'd send you to, among others, Willard Espy for both more fun and more information.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the better offerings for word junkies and language mavens
In the pre-Internet days, the reference desk in a large public library (of the sort where I spent several years early in my career) would be back by a collection of ready-reference... Read more
Published 26 days ago by Michael K. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars American English, flexible and most expressive.
Patricia O'Conner is the most enjoyable writer today on the foibles and joys of the English language! Read more
Published 7 months ago by Alexandra Wise
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it if you love or hate English grammar.
A superb book about vagaries of English language.
The book discusses the origins of language's strange rules
and, in some cases, their absurdities. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Simulacrum
5.0 out of 5 stars A lot of fun
In addition to being a lot of fun, Origins of the Specious is a great way to learn to unclutter your use of English.
Published 9 months ago by Chris Moller
5.0 out of 5 stars required headline
great -- i need eighteen more words to fill this out so let me type a word or two more ;0)
Published 14 months ago by dorothy Moran
3.0 out of 5 stars Good
A bit "heavier: than "Woe is I" but still an easy style and very informative. Price was good with the used version too.
Published 14 months ago by meganajjcec
5.0 out of 5 stars So good, it actually made me angry
Origins of the Specious sets the record straight on some common misconceptions about the English language. It's so good, it actually made me angry. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Lucy Goodchild
4.0 out of 5 stars Amusing
I admit I'm a nerd and like the intricacies of English grammar and etymology. So, I find this book fun.
Published 15 months ago by Carol Orme-johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars Great entertainment!
English is a language that I consider very intriguing. It might be because it is my second language, or it just might be its nature. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Alfredo Angeles
5.0 out of 5 stars A Marvelous Addition to the Writer's Toolbox
There are any number of useful tools which together make up the writer's toolbox. Recently I came across this one, and wanted to give it due credit.

Patricia T. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Walter Spence
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