The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

21 October 2008

I have read the Lynne Truss book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but even though I often agreed with the points she made I found her general tone to be rather obnoxious and off-putting. I enjoyed the following book far more.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left by David Crystal

David Crystal is no stranger to the peculiarities of the English language. He has written or collaborated on several books about the history and development of English as a language, including the very comprehensive The Stories of English and the 2005 Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. And as someone who has spent quite a bit of time pondering the English language and charting its evolution, he is both intrigued and deeply disappointed by the popularity of books such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which its author touts as the ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to punctuation. As he remarks, ‘Zero tolerance? That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?‘ To try to understand the origins of this recent trend in linguistic intolerance, Crystal decided to look into the history of the fight over English usage, the battles that pit the self-proclaimed defenders of ‘proper English’ against those who (for one reason or another) were not exactly prepared to impale themselves upon an upturned semi-colon. The product of that study is The Fight for English, a book that turns an understanding and occasionally sympathetic but nonetheless critical eye on the idea of linguistic fundamentalism.

As Crystal relates, the fight for English is by no means a thing of the recent past; it is almost as old as the language itself. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, are peppered with instances of educated people mocking the speech of the uneducated, and vice versa, with both sides claiming that the other has no real understanding of how English works. Over the centuries, various waves of invasion and the steady rise in cross-Channel trade continually brought new words into the English language and sparked arguments over whether these words were proper additions to the language. Revisions in spelling conventions, often carried out by those who wanted to make English words more closely resemble their ancient origins (as in the silent ‘b’ in ‘debt’, to match the Latin debitum), ran into resistance from those who preferred to spell words as they were commonly pronounced — often with regional dialect variations. As a result, the English language was already a confusing jumble by the time the printing press arrived in England, and the rise of print culture, the expansion of literacy, and the sheer amount of printed material produced prompted further calls for standardisation. Various language authorities, including John Hart in the mid-sixteenth century and Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, pleaded with fellow members of the literary elite to follow particular ‘accepted’ spelling and punctuation styles. Grammar books, mostly based on the Latin grammars that were beaten into English schoolboys’ heads, sought to enforce some sort of order and regularity on a frequently irregular language. As English spread across the Atlantic Ocean, new variations in spelling and punctuation sprang up that continue to cause confusion to this day. And still the language debates continue, with periodic squabbles over comma usage and the best location for quotation marks at the end of sentences…up to the present day, when educators bemoan the rise of netspeak and self-identified language authorities (like Lynne Truss) can find a lucrative audience for their zero-tolerance guides.

Crystal’s linguistic history is lucid, fast-paced, and entertaining, but toward the end of the book The Fight for English starts to dissolve into a rambling authorial attempt to defend himself against the ‘pedants’ who criticise him for having too much of an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards the English language for their liking. One can readily agree that the zero-tolerance mindset is often counterproductive — the very phrase ‘grammar Nazi’ is proof of that, if nothing else. It also tends to breed the sort of tiresome Internet flamewars involving scathing critiques of the original poster’s spelling or grammar in lieu of an actual rebuttal to what the poster wrote. (Is there a Godwin’s Law for grammar Nazis?) Yet it is equally true that attention to the finer points of English grammar, spelling, and punctuation improves the clarity and readability of ideas, reducing ambiguity and suggesting that the writer has taken the time and effort to write well. Arguing over these standards forces us to continuously evaluate the English language and to be conscious of how it is changing — in short, to be more self-critical and aware of what our words and our usage standards convey to others. If, as Crystal claims, the language fundamentalists are useful because they define one end of the tolerance spectrum, then they are also useful because they keep the debate going on some level. At the risk of making an overly Orwellian metaphor, the fight for English will only be truly won when we all use Newspeak — and most any kind of debate would be preferable to that alternative.

One comment

  1. […] on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written […]

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