Defense Against the Picky Grammarian: The Lexicographers Dilemma – A Review

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma
Jack Lynch
Bloomsbury, 336 pg

Finally, a book that takes English as it is, not something that has to be fixed, scolded and, if you are a self important (i.e., deluded) grammarian, made fun of. That I ended the last sentence with a preposition shouldn’t really matter, it is the natural way of speaking, yet over the the last 400 years when grammarians began to fear English was on its last legs, English has been burdened with all kinds of strange rules that don’t reflect how the language is spoken now or in the past. Take the rule against splitting and infinitive. Early English grammarians brought this rule from Latin where it is impossible to split an infinitive. Since Latin was a “perfect language” English should follow its rules. It doesn’t matter that the English infinitive is made of two words and it makes perfect sense to split it: to go boldly, or to boldly go, depending on your taste. The split infinitive rule is just one of the many oddities that prescriptive grammarians have seized on and which Jack Lynch in his enlightening book, shows have no basis in usage, modern or historical. Yet what is it that makes some people so certain that English is about degrade into some bastard language and only grammarians such as the late William Safire or Lynne Truss can save us from such a fate? Lynch doesn’t have an answer (although he suggests they tend to be conservatives) but he makes the case for a middle ground between the prescriptive grammarians who get upset with slight mispronunciations of a word and the descriptive grammarians who say, if it works it is valid. Noting that Ovid said that language is what the people speak, Lynch shows that English has gone through many changes over the years and unlike other European languages, has not had a central body to codify the changes. The lack of a central body has often left prescriptive grammarians fearful that English was about to decay. Often decay meant change, sometimes coming with social change as different classes advanced into more affluent circles, but often it just meant the natural evolution of language. Who decides what is good and what is bad is often left to the self appointed who pick arbitrary rules or frames of reference on which to base good grammar. Whether it is the language of Shakespeare which has many inconsistencies, the rules of Latin (both grammar and spelling) , or the custom of one’s class, the rules that have come down to us are a mix of the arbitrary and urban legend. While he points out there needs to be rules, especially  in written communication, they should not be dogma and should change over time, as they inevitably do. Moreover, he makes the case, disappointing as it maybe to bad spellers the world over, that English spelling as weird as it is, shouldn’t be radically reformed, if for no other reason that it will keep older works of English more readable years down the line. While changing English spelling may not be needed, it was gratifying to learn that many spellings are completely arbitrary and inconsistent, and that early dictionary makers would often change a word’s spelling so that it would conform to Latin or French, but not change words with similar roots. ( All of which has lead to the least interesting of endeavors: the spelling bee). Occasionally, the details of the book become a little too much, but it is fascinating to see how the idea of correctness has evolved, and worth the read.