Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Lexicographer's Dilemma - Jack Lynch

Summary: In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers--those who have tried to regulate or otherwise organize the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma poses a pair of questions--what does proper English mean, and who gets to say what's right? Our ideas of correct or proper English have a history, and today's debates over the state of the language--whether about Ebonics in the schools, the unique use of language in a South Park episode, or split infinitives in the Times--make sense only in a historical context.

As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters who populate his narrative are as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition. . . . In a sense, they're all been failures: despite their combined efforts, our language is every bit as messy and irrational as it was three hundred years ago. But they and others have shaped and influenced the language we speak today.

Grammatical "rules" or "laws" are not like the law of gravity, or even laws against murder and theft--they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Charting the evolution of English with wit and intelligence, Jack Lynch provides a rich historical perspective that makes us appreciate anew the hard-won standards we now enjoy. (Summary from book - image from - review copy from my good friend Emily. Thanks!)

My Review: There are some books that shouldn't be read; they're too dangerous, overwhelming the reader with forbidden secrets and leaving him or her mad, comatose, or worse. Luckily, such books are pretty rare, and usually hidden in mouldering libraries where they're not likely to be stumbled on by the unsuspecting. But there is another class of books, easily available but potentially as dangerous. For me, The Lexicographer's Dilemma was such a book.

Let me explain. When I'm not writing these reviews, I moonlight as a copyeditor--a professional grammar nazi and Custodian of the Purity of the English Language. Dangling participles, split infinitives, and more arcane shibboleths feed my family and pay for my ever-expanding shelves of books. I have a vested interest in keeping proper English esoteric, legalistic, and bound by the tyranny of long-dead grammarians.

But after reading this book, I find myself paralyzed every time I sit down with a manuscript. Where once I wielded my red pen like a sword in noble battle against literary Philistines, now I agonize over each "correction." That split infinitive--is it a mark of sin, or a time-honored and natural part of our speech? That common but nonstandard usage--might it be a natural evolution of the language, a fresh and logical development ?

In short, should I follow my pocketbook or my conscience? But I can't avoid the truth-- though the garrisons of ivory towers grumble their hoary rules, they are powerless to chain the language, which runs rampant, Dionysian, with flowers in its hair. My red pen is inked with the blood of the innocent. I lay it aside; go now, writers of English, and be free!

My Rating: 4 stars. Caution: The chapter on expletives is rated R for language (of course!), and the entire book is likely to highly offend anyone who was appalled by my use of a split infinitive in this sentence.

Sum it up: Engaging, well-researched, and above all, reasonable—I should not have read this book.* But you should!

*Though I'm glad I did.


MindySue said...

Inked with the blood of the innocent!?!!? *SNORT* Love it!

Raise your hand if you are unbelieveably terrified of Dan reading anything you've ever written.


Rebecca Rose said...

You're funny, Mindy. You might be surprised to find out how much Daniel doesn't care how people write. Even though I know that, I still get nervous when he reads anything I've written (like this comment). So...

Kari said...

Daniel, this was something I've struggled with as well, although I know my grammar is FAR from perfect. It was something stressed to pre-service teachers in my education program. Where's the line though? Where do you hold your guns and where should you just let evolution takes its course? I haven't figured it completely out yet, but that's partly because I'm still trying to get a majority of my students to use periods consistently. Yes, it is that bad.

emily said...

All I can say... I am so, so sorry. And if you ever get Elliott to consistently eat something other than buttered noodles, please send me the grocery bill

emily said...

oh... and since I didn't not read the other comments first...


(he doesn't know I have a blog, right, becca?)

Daniel Nighting said...

Emily, I print out every blog entry you post, mark it up violently in red ink, and file it away in case you ever become famous. It's lame blackmail, but it's the best I've got.

Kari, I hear you! I'd love it if the professors whose books I edit could spell, or use commas appropriately. But that's formal writing, on technical topics, where clarity and precision are vital. For more informal writing, I draw the line only where the "errors" get in the way of the meaning. Most of the time, they don't.


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