Friday, April 16, 2010

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
by Jack Lynch
New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2009

Have you ever wondered why split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions were forbidden by grammar books? Maybe you're more curious about dictionaries and their history of recording, and sometimes making judgments about, the language. Jack Lynch covers all this and more in The Lexicographer's Dilemma, a history of all those rules (grammar, spelling, etc.) about our native language that we had to study at school - or, as he more succinctly puts it, "the evolution of 'proper' English."

That's not to say that he's making fun of these rules, though on the occasions he does, it's very entertaining. Generally Lynch takes a balanced approach, recognizing the need to learn and know standard English for writing at school, work, and other situations, while recognizing and even celebrating the natural changes made in language as years go by. His chapter on eighteenth century grammarians really bring this balance to light. Some pile on these men all the faults of trying to force English into a Latin mode with such rules as "don't split an infinitive." Actually, Lynch argues, many of these rules did not begin in the 18th century - and the three big names in grammar were not strictly lay-down-the-law types. He quotes from many sources at length to prove his points, and I've made note of a few more books I want to read in the future.

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