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"Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation"

“Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation”

Author: Ammon Shea

Publisher: Penguin Group: A Perigee Book

Pages: 247

Price: $16.00 (Paperback)

Ammon Shea is a well known, reliable and often comic linguistic journalist with a solid publishing history. He’s the author of “Depraved English” (1999), “Insulting English” (2001) and a study of the phone book as a text to read. Recently he got a lot of attention with “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” (2008), another masochistic project which is, as you might expect , a running commentary on a huge book often consulted but, like the phone book, never read.

I must confess when I picked up “Bad English” I thought I would be happily reading a snarky commentary reinforcing my firm, long-held linguistic pet peeves. ( have been, after all, an English professor all my adult life.) Instead, the theme of the book is: relax, accept change, living languages never hold still, what seems new really isn’t, don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Some of this sat well with me.

For example: split infinitives if you have to. It can improve the sentence. It’s fine to boldly go where no man has gone before. Think of the correct usage: to go boldly? boldly to go? Less effective.

One or two words is my limit, however. Too many, and the reader will lose track of what the verb is likely to be when he gets there. (Yes , I still like “he” for the unnamed party in the third person, not the now-ubiquitous “they,” but this battle has been lost. “They” is now used to mean one person. And when you answer your phone, go ahead and say “This is her,” not “This is she,” otherwise, the caller will think you are odd, or educated.)

A fifteenth century writer, Reginald Peacock, used to split infinitives with as many as fifty words intervening. Still, Shea acknowledges, some people advise concerning of split infinitives: “it is advisable to not use them.”

I’m also easy with using prepositions to end sentences with. This is called by opponents “preposition stranding.” It is something up with which we should not put. Instructors of freshman English still teach the rule but Shea is not worried: “the college students will likely pay them no more mind than anything else they are taught.”

There were sections I was less comfortable with. I have feelings about using “hopefully” flagrantly instead of “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Shea reminds the reader we now use “surely” in this way all the time , beginning sentences: “surely, that is not what you meant to say.”

I figuratively, not literally, cringe and puke, when I hear “literally” misused. Too bad for me. It has been so misused since the early 15th century and more recently by Twain and Nabokov.

I will also have to adjust to varieties of “unique.” More unique, most unique . What next? Uniquer? Uniquest? Well, actually, yes. It’s not right, but it can’t be stopped. Knowing what “unique” means is a burden, exposing one to daily irritation. But, Shea explains, bright folk have employed intensifiers for hundreds of years. The Declaration of Independence contains “to form a more perfect union” and Julius Caesar uses his last breaths to comment “this was the most unkindest cut of all.”

For me “disinterested” will never mean “uninterested,” but Shea has discovered that in the 17th century the words exchanged meanings. Oh well.

About apostrophes: whether in contractions, possessives, or the pitfalls of it’s/its, the possibility for error is enormous. (“Enormity,” by the way, used correctly, means a great evil, not a great size.) But apostrophes have always been a mess. “The role of the apostrophe is in flux,” says Shea. Check out signs in store windows and even your neighbor’s mailbox if you don’t believe this.

Reading the section on verbing nouns I had mixed feelings. “To author” is established, as is “to finalize.”  One can shop at a shop. I can live with “to optimize” and “incentivize,” “to friend,” “to gift,” but with God as my witness I will never, never accept “to impact,” and its illegitimate, ugly offspring , impacted, impactful and impactfulness. To even hear it is literally sickening.

Shea’s book is packed with instructive examples and amusing explanations . He even, like, reports, on the usefulness of the “awesome” word “like,” which is not , it seems, entirely hollow.

Although this approaches absurdity, linguists have cataloged four uses of “like.” For example: as “quotative compartmentalizer”: “My teacher was like ‘You shouldn’t say that.’”

And (yes, we can start a sentence with “and”) as an “approximative adverb”: “It will take me like forever to learn these grammar rules.” There are two more but I will spare you.

Although many think of linguistics as dull stuff, it is actually difficult to talk about language and usage without some levity, in the form of wordplay.

Shea’s subtitle, “Linguistic Aggravation,” is a kind of private joke. “To aggravate” does not mean “to irritate”; it means “to make worse.” But who cares ?

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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