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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park [Paperback]

Jack W. Lynch
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 26, 2010 0802777694 978-0802777690

In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate or otherwise organize the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma poses a pair of questions—what does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Our ideas of correct or proper English have a history, and today's debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools, the unique use of language in a South Park episode, or split infinitives in the Times—make sense only in historical context. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters who populate his narrative are as interesting for their obsessions as for their erudition. Charting the evolution of English with wit and intelligence, he provides a rich historical perspective that makes us appreciate a new the hard-won standards we now enjoy.

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Editorial Reviews


“Lynch’s highly readable book will appeal to all users of the English language, from word buffs to scholars alike.”—Library Journal

“Lynch recognizes that grace, clarity, and precision of expression are paramount. His many well-chosen and entertaining examples support his conclusion that prescriptions and pedantry will always give way to change, and that we should stop fretting, relax, and embrace it.”—Boston Globe

“In his sprightly new history of the notion of ‘proper’ English … Lynch [asks] us all to calm down, please, and recognize that ‘proper’ English is a recent and changeable institution.”—Salon

About the Author

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University and a Johnson scholar, having studied the great lexicographer for nearly a decade. In addition to his books on Johnson and on Elizabethan England, he has written journal articles and scholarly reviews, and hosts a Web site devoted to these topics at http://andromeda. He is the author of Becoming Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson's Insults and the editor of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. He lives in Lawrenceville, NJ.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (October 26, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802777694
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802777690
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.4 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #334,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jack Lynch is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He's the author of a series of books and articles -- some for scholarly audiences, some for popular audiences -- on eighteenth-century culture, Samuel Johnson, William Shakespeare, the history of the English language, English grammar and style, reference books, and forgery, fakery, and fraud.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening, enjoyable, entertaining November 26, 2009
One might expect the first adjective, but certainly not the other two when describing a book on the subjects of linguistics and lexicography. However, I believe that this book will not only appeal to those familiar with these subjects, but also to those taking their first foray into the territory. This isn't some fusty old textbook, laying out the history of the English language, invasion to invasion, scribe to Gutenberg. Instead, it's a jolly romp through the trials and travails of those intimately involved with the attempt to categorize, curtail, and clean up our messy, confusing English language; from the curmudgeonly to confused, from shy to boastful, from historically famous to those left behind as mere footnotes. The biggest selling point is the fact that modern contributors to English aren't ignored, glossed over, or treated as a pox upon our "noble" language. Many familiar names are referenced alongside (or, more accurately, right after) the more sedate, historical personages such as Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster: George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Quentin Tarantino--those who, in their own colorful, creative, and ofttimes controversial way, continue to shape what we know as "good" English and "bad" English. And, yes, that includes South Park. The phenomenon brought about by the Internet Age--blogging, texting, Tweeting--all those activities supported by a vast multitude of unnamed persons who support these endeavors with their own shorthand versions of English, also earns a place in the lineage of our language.

Upon reading this book, I realized something very important: Nothing is new. From the dawn of language itself, people have been bemoaning its demise.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of "Grammar, And Nonsense, And Learning" November 28, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'll admit it: I'm a word-nerd. But even if you're not the sort of person who reads Fowler for fun, there's much here to delight anyone who loves language. If you've ever wondered what that "p" is doing in "receipt", or argued with a friend over the status of "ain't", you're sure to enjoy this book.

The "dilemma" in the title refers to the tension between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to English usage and grammar: between documenting the way English is actually written or spoken and enforcing someone's idea of "proper" English. Although he's also the author of The English Language: A User's Guide, Lynch is no narrow-minded prescriptivist. As he writes in the concluding chapter: "Speaking and writing our own language shouldn't be a chore; we should resist all attempts to make us feel ashamed of speaking the way the rest of the world speaks." At the same time, Lynch treats the oft-maligned "18th-century grammarians" fairly, presenting them as more than caricatures and giving historical context for their efforts.

The Lexicographer's Dilemma is fascinating because it touches on so many subjects in the course of exploring this central theme: from the great dictionaries and the people who edited them to the vagaries of English orthography and the many, futile attempts to reform it; from Dryden and Swift to George Carlin. Though I found the final three chapters less interesting (and a bit preachy), I found most of the book as gripping as a well-plotted novel. I also learned a great deal, despite a life-long fascination with the subject matter and a shelf full of similar books. Finally, Lynch's own writing is clear and full of good humor.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Speaking good vs. Writing Well November 11, 2009
A learned yet accessible book on the modern history of the English language, which gloriously has resisted true standardization to this day -- which allows it to remain alive and to be enjoyed by George Carlin no less than William Safire. Explains the tension between "norma loquendi" and the "King's English", between the descriptive and the prescriptive. I particularly enjoyed the deep dive into the nature of certain iconic grammatical "rules", how they came to be, and why they are usually ill-founded. Usage is what ultimately matters, and Henry Watson Fowler's (and his followers, such as Strunk and White) instructions to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid can hardly be improved on. Lynch provides us with five grounds to object to a word, phrase or usage: taste, authority, etymology, analogy, and logic. Always appropriate to keep in mind when speaking or writing.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars English and class anxiety December 31, 2009
The curious thing about the prescriptive tradition of English language punditry is not that it exists. Every widely used written language develops one, because they all exist on a continuum of formal versus colloquial styles. Written language cannot fully express some communication strategies used in spoken language, and therefore needs new ones. No, what makes the English language tradition of stylistic guidance different is the peculiar vehemence and rancor its more recent exponents use in delivering their judgments.

To me, the most interesting point this book makes is to set out the origin of the tradition in class anxiety. When kings were kings and lords were lords, they had no need to be anxious as to whether their usage was "correct" or not. Rather, the rise of a newly literate middle class caused anxiety over appropriate style and grammar to arise. People whose grandparents had no need for reading or writing wanted to be certain that their written text conformed to prestige varieties of English, and thus became consumers of dictionaries, works of instruction on prose models, and style guides. Prof. Lynch, a Samuel Johnson scholar whose previous works include a selection of gems from Johnson's dictionary, is well situated to give an account of this process.

In one standard narrative, "eighteenth century grammarians" are made the villains of this process. This book debunks that narrative. These grammarians were not a pack of self-important schoolmasters enforcing arbitrary decrees with rod and cane. They were, in fact, first rate minds. They included Joseph Priestley, the chemist who caused no end of trouble with his invention of oxygen; and Robert Lowth, a less well known name, but one of the period's profoundest Old Testament scholars.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars satisfying a thousand unknown curiosities
Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma answers the questions about language that we all want to ask: Where do finicky grammar rules come from? Read more
Published 2 months ago by Emily
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Carrier
The book came just in time, the book is in perfect and amazing conditions. I truly and highly recommend this carrier. As a college student, I need things fast, they do just that.
Published 5 months ago by Anaiise
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightfully informative, exhaustively researched
Word lovers, students of English, history buffs, proponents and detractors of the Oxford comma, linguaphiles and logophiles of ever ilk: You will delight in this book!
Published 9 months ago by Kindle Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but went on and on!
Good book, got a little dry. I was unable to finish but did learn a lot. Wish Lynch had been able to be more sparse with his words. Read more
Published 11 months ago by hwilson
5.0 out of 5 stars A pure delight
Wittily written, informative, and a helluva lot of fun! Looks at English from historical and cultural povs and makes you both think and smile.
Published 12 months ago by Ken Onuska Berman
5.0 out of 5 stars Phenomenal fun and yet it is grammar!
This is a fantastic book of things that were taught to English students 200 hundred years ago, but brought into the modern age. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Carolin K. Shining
4.0 out of 5 stars History of modern English, fun and easy
A very interesting and entertaining read! The author treats the history of modern English very practically, in terms of key people and their stories. Read more
Published on June 5, 2012 by F. Vogel
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that delivers on its premise...
I wouldn't have written a review at all, as I think the positive reviews do the book justice, but the negative reviews deserve attention. The book delivers what it says it does. Read more
Published on June 10, 2011 by Christopher P. Marsh
4.0 out of 5 stars A layman's history -- in a good way
To occasionally point out usage errors in the vast amounts of text to which we are all exposed daily is the hobby of many intellectuals, but what was the genesis of these rules? Read more
Published on June 7, 2011 by A. Livingston
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb fascinating read
Brilliant, fair-minded and witty, this book explores the many hidden issues in the creation of dictionaries, their history and the social-political waves they both generated and... Read more
Published on May 23, 2011 by Hanoch McCarty
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From Brianna Cole:

As a non-academic, lover of language, this was a spectacular read. I enjoyed Lynch's exploration of the history of English, giving me examples of the changes that my language has seen in the past, and letting me know... Read More
Aug 31, 2009 by Brianna Cole |  See all 2 posts
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