53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
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. Every generation worries that the one coming up behind them is going to hell in a handbasket--and taking the English language with it. I admit, I'm a language prude. I wince at text-speak, I rave madly when someone uses a word or phrase incorrectly, at least, incorrectly to my thinking; I try not to leave participles dangling or split my infinitives. The lesson of this book, however, is that English is a mutable language. It can be used, or abused, in the most extreme fashion, yet it will always bounce back and remain steady, if not always comprehensible to the elder generation. So, the lesson I've learned is that I, and all others who bemoan the imminent demise of English, should just chillax (a slang word I would have never deemed worth using before this point). I can't say I'll ever go out of my way to use split infinitives, dangling participles, or double (or triple or even quadruple) negatives. However, knowing that all of these grammatical "errors" have pedigreed pasts, going back to Shakespeare and Chaucer (who appears to be a master of the quadruple negative), I won't feel as though I'm committing a capital offense if one happens to slip into my writing or conversation. Even the dreaded ain't has a place in this world. English has the near-miraculous ability to be combined in almost infinite ways to create new words. Those words may only be one-offs, created as literary puns or linguistic exercises; they may end up as dictionary staples. The point is, English is flexible and fun. We can rail against its quirks, its bizarre spellings which don't match pronunciations, or, conversely, too many spellings which match a single pronunciation, but without its inherent freedom of expression, we would be lost without it.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified 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.
Lynch covers much ground in under 300 pages, but I did find one omission surprising: although he discusses split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, he remains silent on the ever-controversial third-person indefinite singular pronoun. A balanced, informed discussion of the history behind "he" vs. "they" would make a valuable addition to the book.
In short: here's a book about English that's more fun than a barrel full of monkeys typing Shakespeare!
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 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. Their stylistic judgments were for the most part founded in observation, and more importantly, presented as stylistic guidance rather than moral judgments. They had no distorted view of the issues they addressed; they merely rejected some colloquial usage as being wrong for a formal style.
The rancor and *ipse dixits* came later. It was not enough to make stylistic judgments as to levels of desired formality. The uses appropriate to a formal style got changed into rules, so that schoolteachers could use them to grade with. This turned them from "formal vs. informal" to "right vs. wrong". This set up an unfortunate dynamic. Attempting to refocus on what was really at stake (whether a piece of prose was appropriate in style for its audience and subject) and to describe the language as an entity continuing to develop -- all of these things were recast as a rise of "permissive" standards, a slack and anarchic upstart that threatened the establishment of Authority and Tradition. This gave English style guidance a political dimension, and as such raised the level of tension beyond anything appropriate to the subject.
Now, more than ever, in an era of buzzwords, TLAs, depersonalizing constructions, inappropriate abstractions, and glittering generalities, we need an intelligent rebirth of an English prescriptive tradition. It's a vital part of informed and critical reading, needed to see past verbal sleight of hand acts. But we need to develop that while recognizing that English does in fact continue to develop, and without losing sight of the actual goals and real issues addressed by this sort of linguistic commentary.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book gives an interesting and entertaining account of the major people and events that shaped the lexicographic tools of the English language - dictionaries, thesauruses and grammars. It says little about pronunciation, which is quite understandable as the spoken language is worth a book in itself.
Much of the book deals with struggles between descriptivists who just want to describe the language, and prescriptivists who want to lay down the correct use of English. This essentially class struggle has been going on for centuries.
The book sides with the descriptivists, with the proviso that while there is no "correct" English, there are certainly "appropriate" Englishes depending on the context. One would not expect the President of the US to give his inauguration address in Ebonics, for example.
The chapter "Expletive Deleted" is particularly entertaining, with some very funny stories. Unfortunately I dare not risk giving examples for fear that Amazon censoring algorithms will reject this review completely.
This chapter deals with the battle among dictionary publishers and the public over how (or if) to treat very "naughty words" in dictionaries. All of the four-letter words appear in this chapter, together with the rather silly euphemisms employed to disguise the actual words. Why write f**k instead of - well, you get the picture!
But even the "naughty words" change over time and it is difficult for English speakers today to understand the outrage that greeted the use of "bloody" in Shaw's play Pygmalion. Similarly, racist words have become a lightning rod for language thought police. I would have liked the author to discuss this a bit more, especially silly attempts to clean up children's books by euphemising racist terms.
The book covers all the major lexicographical figures, such as Johnson, Roget, Webster and the 18th century grammarians, as well as the major milestones in written English - Johnson's dictionary, Websters dictionary Roget's Thesaurus and the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, it is a pity he omitted any mention of William Chester Minor, a surgeon who ultimately contributed a very large number of words to the Oxford English Dictionary. After serving as a surgeon in the US Civil War, he was eventually confined to Broadmoor insane asylum suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, from where he made his contributions to the OED and also cut off his own penis. See [...] for more details, or read "The surgeon of Crowthorne", by Simon Winchester, for his biography.
I liked the book and I think it is worth the money.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. History is my favorite topic and I love books that not only teach me about the topic it's based on, but about connected things and issues and the world and times in which they happened. This book does this many times over.
I knew some of the historical facts mentioned and highlighted in this book, but I had never seen them in this context before and made me see and understand things in a new way, there were many ah ha! and now I see! moments through out this book.
It is well written in an easy to follow and understand way, you don't need to be an expert in language or study it's usage to learn from and enjoy this book, it is highly accessible to anyone interested in words and language.
This topic could have easily become try dry or detailed and boring, but at no point did it do this for me, I was highly entertained as well as educated by every chapter.
And as someone who has struggled with spelling all her writing and reading life, I can finally understand how our language got as crazy as it did and still be proud that we have managed to resist all attempts to reign it in...even if I suffered for it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2011
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? Who has the right to decide which speech patterns are proper and which are coarse?
This book presents a layman's history of the development of dictionaries, thesauri, and other authorities on our language, and, as such, is a quality read for anyone who considers himself knowledgeable in such matters. There is a noticeable bias away from prescriptive rules (starting with the word 'proper' in quotation marks on the cover), but it does not take away from the overall effect. A read of this title is sure to lead to many conversations about about proper English with friends and colleagues, especially if you are the sort who noticed the split infinitive which started this review.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
First, the disclaimer. Jack Lynch and I are not related, but we know each other through a common interest in Samuel Johnson (a web search on Johnson will quickly get you to both our sites). I have been in the acknowledgments in at least one of his books, and if I ever get my Johnson anthology published he will be in mine.
Now, the book review. The dilemma in the title refers to the lexicographer's choice between being prescriptive (providing rules and taking a position of authority) and being descriptive (describing how the language is used, and not taking a position on what you should do). It's a false choice, and Lynch pretty much acknowledges that early on; not only does he say that the title choice was his publishers, but he provides a number of examples where lexicographers have chosen something in between.
In a largely chronological exploration of the development of dictionaries and language styles, Lynch explores the ways lexicographers have hewed to either a prescriptive or descriptive extreme or chosen something in between. And although this sounds like a book you might need to blow the dust off, that's not true at all: the book is closer to a romp. A romp, you say? Yes, I do, because with each discussion of Horace, Dryden, Johnson, Webster, and so on, Lynch lays out practical implications of their actions, drawing not just on a specific lexicographer's or grammarian's opus, but examples in our own language.
And the so called 'rules'? They ain't necessarily so: it's not like they came to Moses on a tablet; they were the inventions of studied men, and while they had authority at their backs, their intentions can be characterized as misguided. For example, the split infinitive ("to swiftly run" vs. "to run swiftly"). Those who said we shouldn't split our infinitives were trying to make English conform to Latin or Greek, where the infinitive form is a single word (a conjugated, one word verb) which cannot be split. And of course, the fact that you can't do it in Latin doesn't mean you can't do it in English.
As Lynch brings out issues such as these, and the history not just of dictionaries and dictionary *publishing* (yes, the marketing department's actions have an impact, too), Lynch sweetens the pot with all sorts of beguiling discussions, and doesn't hesitate to delve into current colloquialisms to entertain. At one point he even hesitates before his punch line to interject - - wait for it - - "wait for it."
It's a thorough book, bringing in even George Carlin, and how his list of seven words solidified censors' concepts of what to allow... That was a surprise.
And as for his chapter on Samuel Johnson - - probably the one chapter where I know the subject well enough to immediately see the choices he made in what and what not to write about - - he has left out a considerable amount of arcane information in order to keep the story moving. The story moves in all the chapters, but I presume he cast a sharp eye on omitting similar arcana there.
In short, if you're into words and ever wondered about our language and why some of our "rules" have so many exceptions, this is a very informative, very entertaining book. I strongly recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
A fun read for any word maven, or anyone interested in a brief dip in to the origins and crooked paths of English language usage. Lynch keeps it light and entertaining, while providing lots of historical perspective. My only complaint is that he tends to repeat himself a bit, restating in the early chapters observations made in the introduction, and in the later chapters observations made in the earlier chapters. Normally no big deal, but sometimes written as if he (or the reader, at least) has forgotten what had already been said. No big deal though. A highly recommended read. Follow this up with Robert Burchfield's "The English Language".
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
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 had to endure.
If you are interested in the development of the English language, you'll find this of great value.
Note: buy the PRINTED version! As usual, the kindle version is infested with words run together, words split into odd bits, and other bizarrities of poor or nonexistent proofing and editorial neglect. The price charged for a 'virtual' copy is unconscionable enough without adding to the insult by shoddiness.