Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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

Posted by nliakos on October 11, 2012

By David Crystal (Oxford University Press 2006)

Having thoroughly enjoyed Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, I was astonished to discover that The Fight for English is in some ways a long rant against Truss’ supposed “punditry”.  Although he insists that he likes her, he devoted the Prologue and four entire chapters to explaining why Truss and people like her are wrong to aggressively defend language “rules”. He also refers to her (or her book) elsewhere and writes in the last paragraph of the final chapter, “I wrote this book to explain why English usage became such an issue—why, in short, so many millions bought Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”

I thought the popularity of Truss’ book was due to the fact that it is a very funny book. Silly me! Apparently most of those who bought it were hoping to fix their faulty punctuation and by doing so to shore up their confidence in their ability to write their native language. Well, maybe. But if I wanted to improve my punctuation skill, Truss’ book is not where I would have sought enlightenment.

Crystal also faults Truss for being too militant (for taking a “zero-tolerance approach to punctuation”). He writes in the Prologue, “That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?” Does he really have so little sense of humor as that? Does he think Truss was using her book to marshal the troops for punctuation reform—turning her readers into guerrillas armed with spray paint?

The attacks on one of my favorite books aside, I found it easy to agree with Crystal’s basic point, which is that languages, including English, change; that there is always someone who complains about how other people use the language; and that these complainers often base their complaints on spurious information. I found the historical approach interesting; I reviewed some things I learned in my History of English class in graduate school and learned some new things, such as that the rule distinguishing will and shall no more holds true for British English than it does for American English. The history of punctuation marks was also interesting, as was the chapter on spelling. I never knew the historical reasons for the failure to establish an English Academy to set language standards (Every time someone attempted to do so, another political upheaval prevented it.) I really enjoyed the whole book! I just don’t understand why he came down so hard on poor Lynne Truss.

PS Did anyone else notice that Lynne Truss avoids the Oxford comma in the title of her book, but David Crystal uses it in the subtitle to his? (This is probably the kind of hair-splitting that Crystal wishes we would all avoid.)

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