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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language Hardcover – May 5, 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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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.

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 266 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (May 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400066603
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400066605
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,069,333 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

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Format: Paperback
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.

If you're the kind of person who cringes at the sight of a word with a 'z' where there ought to be an 's' ("look at all these Americanisms... it's just not proper English!"), tells the joyful tale of how Thomas Crapper, toilet mogul, lent his name to the act ("before that they didn't have a rude word for it"), and gets hot under the collar when people mispronounce niche ("It's NEESH!"), then prepare to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and slightly cross. It's never nice when someone shows you how wrong you are.

Authors Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman pair up again, after writing You Send Me and running the popular website Grammarphobia.com (which you should definitely visit). O'Conner is the bestselling author of several books on the English language, including Woe is I. A former editor at the New York Times, O'Conner has written for many outlets over the years, and it shows. Her engaging, clear, readable, witty style makes sailing through her books a breeze. Written in her voice, Origins is no exception.

I read the paperback version of the book and, while I'm a big advocate of the idea that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I do want to comment on it. The book is delightfully floppy. It's nice to hold, which makes its page-turning quality even more enjoyable. And the cover itself is vibrant and eye-catching. Dead easy to locate on my bookshelf.

This is one of the most entertaining romps through language I've had in a long time. It's beautifully written, hilariously funny and at times unbelievably shocking.
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