on November 23, 2011
The local bookstore had this book displayed front and center surrounded by dictionaries. I bought it, went home and read it in one sitting. I have since reread entire passages two and three times. Like Hitchings I wince when people use improper grammatical construction or interchange words incorrectly. I am often stunned by work product I receive from employees who have no ability to concisely convey their thoughts, much less convey them in complete sentences with proper use of adjectives and adverbs. The increasing use of `text speak' and truncated twitter messages do not bode well for our ongoing treatment of language.
Hitchings has a descriptivist view that languages evolve over time. This is in direct contrast to the prescriptivist view that there is one right way to speak and write. He cites historical references for why some things are improper, i.e., ending a sentence with a preposition or the use of contractions in speech and writing. Additionally he peppers his book with anecdotal stories of individuals who disliked a particular word or its use in certain situations. He has a compelling argument for clear expression that political correctness sometimes obscures. He talks with passion about the identity a language gives a nation.
This is not likely a book that will appeal to a wide audience. If you enjoy the minutiae of language and its history, this is a book for you.
on February 7, 2012
As an erstwhile college English teacher and part-time copy editor, I found this book fascinating and felt sorry it had to end so soon. Some readers were offended by the extended discussion of foul language, but to omit this topic would have been dishonest--just listen to what is going on around you. Like one reviewer, I was a bit taken back by the historical gaffe regarding the French and Indian Wars, but perhaps Hitchings was taking a more continental view of the war. Also, I found it difficult to equate the conquests of Ghengis Khan with genocide; that was the way they fought then--surrender and you live, resist and you die, and he was very egalitarian in dealing out death. Coming from a person who is so sensitive to the meaning of words, this definition was a stunner.
I wish that he had written more about the debilitating effects of PowerPoint on writing and its potential for numbing an audience. Having a presenter read the slides in a PowerPoint presentation must rate high on the cruel-and-unusual punishment scale. However, this topic may not rate high on his list of linguistic sins.
The great thing about this book, in addition to the information it provides, is its sense of humor. Sorry about that moralistic people, but there are funny asides throughout the book that keep this from being a dry as dust historic tome about language and serve as great ways of making a point.
Perhaps it might have been better to have as a subtitle "A History of Proper and not so Proper English." That might have served as a warning flag to those with delicate sensitivities.
All in all, a book that makes me want to search out Hitchings' other books. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
on May 8, 2012
Hitchings, previously the author of a fine book on the history of Samuel Johnson's famous DICTIONARY, here traces the "history of proper English" in a highly anecdotal, but equally enjoyable, volume. Cultural declinists who are convinced that our society is becoming ever more illiterate thanks to slipshod education and the growing dominance of electronic media will perhaps be heartened -- though only a bit, I would imagine -- to learn that writers, readers, and thinkers have been worrying over the state of the English language for many hundreds of years. Despite numerous attempts -- some well-mounted, some far-fetched -- to encase English grammar, spelling, and rules of usage in some sort of rigorously defined and maintained carapace of regular rules, the language and its structure have continued to mutate, and this process is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Hitchings' goal is to describe "how we got here," and this he does quite admirably.
Hopkins mediates the eternal argument between descriptivists (those grammarians who merely want to describe the language as it is actually used) and prescriptivists (those who seek to discover the rules that the language should follow) in a fair manner. Though perhaps leaning a bit towards the descriptivist side, he provides an even-handed treatment of the innumerable grammars, spellers, dictionaries, style guides, and other devices that writers have used to beat English's idiosyncrasies into something resembling a manageable form. The names and dates flash by so quickly that it is very easy to get lost, especially when no facsimile pages or similar visual materials are provided to illustrate the tomes being described. The book's reassuringly chronological approach also breaks down near the end, as Hitchings diverges into discussions of profanity, politically correct speech, irritating phrases, and the potential (mis) use of the language for propaganda purposes. Any language buff or avid reader, however, will find much in this book on which to reflect and ponder.
on June 7, 2012
As author Henry Hitchings notes in the opening of "The Language Wars," those whose first language is English frequently argue and debate about how to use the language properly in both the spoken and written forms.
The English language now has a long and storied history stretching back several centuries. Hitchings traces that history, including some of the contributions of authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, in this superb volume. He discusses how the language changed across those long stretches of time and looks at the standardization process that took place. Also discussed are how English changed with social change and lists some of the values in the core English-speaking countries that helped shape the language.
We have all been in debates about spelling, pronunciation, and punctuation--Hitchings examines these usage topics and also touches on the topics of the split infinitive, slang, censorship, profanity, and more. The author also discusses dialects--an area of language that interests just about everyone and ends up sparking many friendly debates, as I learned when I moved from Michigan to Texas in the seventh grade.
Near the end of the volume Hitchings looks at the spread of English around the world, notes the effect that current technology has on language, and even offers a couple of predictions on what may happen in English in the future. Any English speaker with a keen interest in language would enjoy "The Language Wars."
on May 19, 2013
The first, I would say, 60% of the book on development and history of the English language is a very enjoyable read. I feel, during the latter part, the author loses the cohesiveness of the subject and starts 'dabbling' in 'a bit of this and that'. All in all a good book. I am looking forward to the author's book on 'the English and their habits' to come out in Kindle format.
on April 26, 2015
As one of the people Mr. Hitchings gently teases in his book (i.e., an "inveterate fusspot" and an avid follower of the "prescriptive grammar" approach), it is a tribute to what a superb writer he is that I read this entire book and actually came away somewhat agreeing with him. His style is lucid; his prose gives great pleasure; his logic is almost irrefutable; his vocabulary is fine enough to keep a reader engaged, but not so much so that it sends him to an "Oxford Dictionary of Insanely Obscure Words" or the like. (I gave up Alexander Theroux, sorry.) It is one thing for sloppy-minded people who are grammatically incapable of forming a proper sentence to advocate a more relaxed approach to English grammar; it is quite another for someone of Mr. Hitchings' caliber to chide one for one's overly-rigid stance. Superb book for lovers of the English language.
on July 12, 2012
Hitchings does a monumental job in research and thoroughness on the history of the English language comparable to The Secret Life of Words. When does English become an official language and a language of national consciousness? When do people begin to argue about split infinitives and prepositional stranding? Why do we argue today over correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary? What were the first English dictionaries and grammar books? What's the relationship between grammar teaching and Latin? How is correctness linked to class consciousness and ideas of upward mobility? These and many other questions about correct English are to be answered by this book.
Hitchings' philosophy is that "[a]ll living human languages alter, meanings shift, and so do pronunciations and grammatical structures. We may feel that language is stable, but this is an illusion," p. 4. It is a great book written with a fluency accessible to any interested reader.
on June 6, 2014
I've always been interested in how people communicate in general and in language and it's uses - especially why we say things in the way we do. I had a couple of college classes in linguistics and one in the history of the English language but nothing that brought it all together in such clear way. I love to read good prose and, although never an English teacher, I itch for a red editor's pen when I read sloppy prose. I love to see the way our language changes through usage. I've never fussed much over the "rules" - I've read extensively enough through the "classics" that it has been obvious to me that styles do change with cultural changes. I will admit that I do have my own little irritants, such as the increasing use of "alright" for "all right", but learning about the past (and reading materials published centuries ago) that these things do change, and that it's alright for them to do so.
on December 3, 2011
From the little I've read so far, this is an intense book that is almost a train-of-thought commentary on English. The author explains the book's organization in the first few pages, and readers are forewarned that they will have to stay alert and concentrate. For a chance to dip your mind into one of Hitchings' typical English language puddles, go to the sample pages 235-7* where Hitchings discusses politically correct language. If you have always suspected that some writers pad their words, avoid frank statements, and wander on and on so they can hide their real feelings, this PC discussion will assure you that your instincts were right. These paragraphs are a fascinating history and sampling of PC wording.
*"Look inside this book"
Henry Hitchings writes well and thoughtfully on the English language in this excellent book. It is not without isolated flaws, its ideas flow in diverse channels, it is not comprehensive--but it will be a joy to read for anyone with a keen interest in the most influential language and human communication.
Mr. Hitchings, writing from the British Isles, leans to the descriptive side of most of the cultural wars he outlines, but redeems himself by pointing out the continued need for clarity in expression and the acknowledgement that some rules promote good writing. He is quite good at describing some of the more modern issues, like word usage on the Internet.
I did not like his use of profane words; unnecessarily, to my thinking, placed in the titles given to chapters 12 and 20.
I liked his distaste for the overused and vacuous words "sustainability" and "proactive."
George Orwell is cited at times in Mr. Hitchings' book. I recommend to readers that they take the time to read, or reread, the four volumes entitled "The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell."
A factual mistake from p. 104: "However during the Seven Years War of 1756-63 British views of American life sharpened; native American Indians fought alongside the British against the colonists, and it became more common to apply the label American not to indigenous peoples, but to the rebellious white colonial subjects."
It is my understanding during that war, known to most of us in the United States as the "French and Indian War," white colonial subjects such as George Washington fought with the British and against the French and tribes allied with the French.