The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Jack Lynch


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ISBN-13: 9780802777690
Publisher: Walker & Company
Publication date: 10/26/2010
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.96(w) x 11.80(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University and a Johnson scholar, having studied the great lexicographer for nearly a decade. In addition to his books on Johnson and on Elizabethan England, he has written journal articles and scholarly reviews, and hosts a Web site devoted to these topics at http://andromeda. He is the author of Becoming Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson's Insults and the editor of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. He lives in Lawrenceville, NJ.

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The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2009 Jack Lynch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1700-9

Chapter One

Vulgarities of Speech


Humans have been using language for a long time, though no one knows how long exactly. Because sounds leave no fossils, clues about the early history of language are scarce. The subject has, nonetheless, prompted endless speculation. As one linguist put it in 1933, "How language originated nobody knows and everybody has told." And, we might add, everybody has told with reckless abandon and precious little regard for fact. The speculation got so bad in the nineteenth century that on March 8, 1866, the newly founded Société Linguistique de Paris placed an official moratorium on papers discussing the subject: article 2 of its bylaws decreed, "The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language." More recent linguists have echoed the society's disgust with the subject. Writing in 1988, Noam Chomsky-the most influential linguist of the last half century-sided with the jaded nineteenth-century Frenchmen: "There is a long history of study of origin of language, asking how it arose from calls of apes and so forth. That investigation in my view is a complete waste of time."

In the last two de cades, though, evolutionary psychology has once again made language origins a hot topic, especially after Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom published a learned essay, "Natural Language and Natural Selection," in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a respected scientific journal, in 1990. What had once been forbidden is now becoming fashionable again, and several books and hundreds of articles on the subject appear every year. Oxford University Press has even started a series of scholarly books called Studies in the Evolution of Language. None of this means that our guesses are necessarily more accurate than they were two hundred years ago. We're still woefully ignorant about where language came from.

We can say with confidence that humans have been using language for more than five thousand years, because we have writing at least that old. We can also say that it has probably been less than five million years, because the fossil record tells us our earliest hominid ancestors had a larynx ill suited to speaking. But "somewhere between five thousand and five million years" is a frustratingly broad range. Virtually all linguists draw a line between animal communication and the tremendous richness and complexity of human language, but presumably our species had to move across that barrier. How we did it and when remain provocative mysteries. We can make a very conservative estimate, though, and say that human beings have been using language as we know it for about a hundred thousand years. A language called "English" split off from the others around the year A.D. 500.

If language, then, is around a hundred thousand years old, and English is fifteen hundred years old, how old are "good" and "bad" English? When, in other words, did people begin singling out one variety and considering it correct, with all other widely used varieties deemed improper? Our notions of proper English are only around three hundred years old-a very recent innovation indeed. For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language we already speak.

And yet, even though attacks on bad English are fairly young in historical terms, they've become a big part of the modern world. That's probably because they can be thoroughly enjoyable. It's fun to revel in well-phrased put-downs. Venom makes for good prose, at least as long as it's not directed at you. A favorite spectator sport in some corners of the journalistic world is watching an ill-mannered critic toss and gore a third- rate writer for his limp clichés and flaccid prose. It's the same kind of malicious glee we take in reading nasty reviews of bad novels or plays. Samuel Johnson raised a laugh when he looked at one poem and said that "though but fourteen lines long, there were six grammatical faults in it." A twentieth-century inheritor of Johnson's mordant wit, Paul Fussell, offers a similarly biting critique of one of the most respected British novelists of the day in an essay called "Can Graham Greene Write English?" Fussell's answer is no. Greene's memoir, he writes, opens in its first sentence with "a freshman howler: 'An autobiography ... may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity more selective....' For less, read fewer." To the memoir publisher's touting of Greene as "the most distinguished living writer in the English language," Fussell responds that the claim is "impertinent and illiterate.... Actually Greene's writing is so patently improvable that it could serve pedagogic purposes, as follows." Then comes an amusingly vicious parody of an undergraduate final exam in an English composition class:


English 345: Expository Writing (Intermediate) (One hour. Write in ink on one side of the paper only.)

The following passages have been written by Mr. Graham Greene in his book Ways of Escape. They have been passed by his editors and approved by his publishers, who assert that Graham Greene is "the most distinguished living writer in the English language." Rewrite each passage as indicated.

1. Correct the grammar:

a. "I am not sure that I detect much promise in [Orient Express], except in the character of Colonel Hartep, the Chief of Police, whom I suspect survived into the world of Aunt August and Travels with My Aunt."

b. "In my hotel, the Ofloffson ..., there were ... a gentle couple whom I cannot deny bore some resemblance to Mr. and Mrs. Smith...."

The long roster of Greene's grammatical and stylistic blunders keeps going-not only whom for who, but also misplaced modifiers, jargon, redundancy, and awkwardness. It's a bravado demonstration of curmudgeonly sarcasm that raises obnoxiousness to the level of performance art, and it has the potential to amuse everyone except Graham Greene himself.

As Fussell shows, bad writing often calls forth good writing. H. L. Mencken's description of President Warren G. Harding's linguistic proficiency is a minor masterpiece of the genre:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

It almost seems worth it to suffer through the writing of a bungler like Harding in order to get sublime vituperation like this.

What's interesting about these attacks, though, is that they would have made no sense before about 1700. Who and whom, less and fewer-things like this may keep modern writers awake at night, but no one seems to have paid them any attention until the grammarians arrived on the scene. Under the old dispensation, people spoke and wrote English without self- consciousness. But we're products of the new dispensation; we live in the age of grammars and dictionaries, rules and prohibitions, and we're expected to know them all before we open our mouths or fire up our word processors.

This book discusses the origins of many so- called rules of English, but we should be clear about what we mean by "rules." 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, useful only in certain situations, and subject to change.

When linguists refer to rules, they mean the principles according to which "The boy sees the girl" counts as a legitimate English sentence while "See girl's boy the the" doesn't. While no one is sure how many such rules there are, one estimate places the count around 3,500. And though weary purists and frustrated schoolmarms complain that badly educated simpletons don't know the rules, almost every native speaker knows virtually all the real rules of English.

What's confusing is that most people don't know they know the rules of English. Two examples can take the place of many. Ask native speakers of English, "My and mine both mean 'belonging to me,' but when do you say my and when do you say mine?" Few will be able to give you a clear answer-at least, not without a long pause to run through various possibilities. They'll be able to produce examples, but few will be able to formulate a rule; only those with some training in linguistics will be able to explain the distinction between attributive and predicate positions. And yet it's very rare for fluent speakers to make a mistake in using these words-even though they've never heard of predicate position, they make use of the idea every day. They know the rule, but they don't know they know the rule. Or another: virtually every native speaker will say "the big red ball" rather than "the red big ball." We all know to put attributive adjectives that refer to size before attributive adjectives that refer to color, but no textbook bothers to spell it out. The real rules are the ones that native speakers don't need to be taught because they're absorbed unconsciously.

When most people talk about the rules, though, they mean something different. The real rules permit sentences like "I wonder where he got it from" and "It looks like he's done," but many people find them unacceptable: one ends with a preposition; the second uses the preposition like as a conjunction and has is done for has finished. A sentence like "I ain't got nobody," by these standards, is a train wreck: it uses the naughty word ain't, the past participle got for the present-tense have, and a double negative. Slang, obscenity, jargon-we've all learned in school that we're not allowed to use them, and for most people, these are the rules. And still virtually everyone gets them wrong.

And most people know they get them wrong. When I'm introduced at a party as an English professor, people immediately turn apologetic about their grammar and shuffle uncomfortably, fearful of offending me and embarrassing themselves. No one feels compelled to confess to engineers that they never got the knack of building bridges, or to doctors that they don't understand the lymphatic system-but nearly everyone feels a strange obligation to come clean to someone who is supposed to be an expert in "grammar." They know there's some difference between lay and lie; they know that shall and will are different somehow; they know that there's some rule about where to put only in a sentence-and yet they don't know what those rules are. They've been scolded for confusing can and may, but to no good effect. They know that there's a mark called the semicolon but haven't a clue what to do with it, and so they ignore it. They therefore have convinced themselves they're not using their language correctly. The only relief most people find is in the thought that at least some people speak worse than they do. It's a well- known fact that whole groups speak bad English, including school dropouts, some ethnic minorities, poor people, and the young-especially the young, who are believed to be incapable of forming coherent sentences. Most people speak improperly; only a talented and educated few get it right.

What, though, does it mean to say that everyone, or almost everyone, speaks incorrectly? There are some things on which everyone can be wrong-when Aristotle argued that heavy bodies fell faster than light ones, he was simply wrong: that's a fact that can be confirmed or denied according to objective standards. But language isn't gravity. To say everyone speaks the language badly is tantamount to saying an entire country drives on the wrong side of the road. Some maintain that It's me is wrong, and It is I is the only correct form, because the case of pronouns has to be the same on either side of a verb of being-but only comic book superheroes routinely say It is I. Doesn't that mean the old rule about pronoun case is no longer operative? The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary recently published a book called 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces-words like acumen, banal, chimera, coup de grâce, debacle, desultory, forte, impious, lingerie, marquis, mores, niche, quay, respite, ribald, and viscount. But if "almost everyone" pronounces forte as for-tay (instead of the traditional fort) or niche as neesh (instead of the traditional nitch), doesn't it mean that for-tay and neesh are now standard pronunciations? The first time an English- speaker pronounced the French word forte as for-tay, it was an unambiguous mistake. Ditto the second time. But what about the thousandth time, or the millionth? At some point the wrong version became right. How long can the tiny band of purists hold out against the rest of the world?

What infinitive-splitters, preposition-enders, double-negativizers, and forte-mispronouncers are violating are not grammatical rules but what linguists call the "prestige forms," the ones given special social status. Often they hold this special status for the most tenuous of reasons, but hold it they do. The alternative is "stigmatized" words or usages. And words, word endings, and word combinations move on and off the naughty list and the nice list as the years pass.

We can see how these forms work by looking at the most stigmatized word in the language, ain't-the word that every five-year-old is taught is not a word. But why not? Just because. It originally entered the language as a contracted form of am not (passing through a phase as an't before the a sound was lengthened) and first appeared in print in 1778, in Frances Burney's novel Evelina. We have uncontroversial contractions for is not (isn't) and are not (aren't), so what's wrong with reducing am not to ain't? The problem is that it was marked as a substandard word in the nineteenth century, people have been repeating the injunction ever since, and no amount of logic can undo it. It's forbidden simply because it's been forbidden.

An anonymous work of 1826, The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected, is typical of the nineteenth- century excoriation of the word ain't. After surveying the various contractions with not-don't, haven't, won't-the author admitted that they're all offensive, though "some of these are much less vulgar than others." One in particular, though, was beyond the pale: "I mean the expression 'a'n't it,'" which he labeled "the most vulgar and incorrect expression in common use." He advised readers to avoid it, reminding them that "you will never hear it employed by any well educated person, much less by correct or elegant speakers." Then comes a handy table of "vulgar" and "correct" ways of saying the same thing:

In order to make you more perfect in avoiding this vulgarity, I shall give you a few corrected examples of it.


I a'n't a going. I am not going. You a'n't able to do it. You are not able to do it. A'n't she come yet? Is she not come yet? A'n't I very lucky? Am I not very lucky? He a'n't ready. He is not ready. They a'n't gone. They are not gone. Those a'n't pretty. Those are not pretty. A'n't they going? Are they not going? It a'n't fine. It is not fine. He is very clever-a'n't Is not Mr. Wilson very Mr. Wilson? clever? This flower is pretty- Is not this flower pretty? a'n't it?

He concluded, "When you have mastered this easy lesson, you may then proceed to the other forms of contraction, which are by no means so bad as this vulgar a'n't." Nearly two centuries later, that "vulgar" word continues to produce shudders among traditionalists.

The ban on ain't is the classic example of a shibboleth. A passage from the Book of Judges sets the scene. The Gileadites and the Ephraimites were at war, and the Gileadites developed a clever way to spot Ephraimite spies:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.


Excerpted from The Lexicographer's Dilemma by JACK LYNCH Copyright © 2009 by Jack Lynch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Vulgarities of Speech: Homo Sapiens Learns to Speak 9

2 The Age in Which I Live: John Dryden Revises His Works 27

3 Proper Words in Proper Places: Jonathan Swift Demands an Academy 49

4 Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Samuel Johnson Lays Down the Law 71

5 The Art of Using Words Properly: Joseph Priestley Seeks Genuine and Established Principles 94

6 The People in These States: Noah Webster Americanizes the Language 116

7 Words, Words, Words: James Murray Surveys Anglicity 139

8 The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: George Bernard Shaw Rewrites the ABCs 163

9 Direct, Simple, Brief, Vigorous, and Lucid: Henry Watson Fowler Shows the Way 186

10 Sabotage in Springfield: Philip Gove Stokes the Flames 207

11 Expletive Deleted: George Carlin Vexes the Censors 229

12 Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future 253

Acknowledgments 277

Notes 279

Bibliography 297

Index 315

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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
sushi105 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
a delightful read for word freaks or those interested in the arcane and twisting paths of word use in english. i read it twice in a row from cover to cover. uses of english as boxing motivations: cute.
jennieg on LibraryThing 10 months ago
What is the lexicographer¿s dilemma? Simply put, it is whether a lexicographer promotes what he believes to be correct English or describes the language as he finds it.? The prescriptivists believe the Rules of English should be handed down and drummed into every schoolchild¿s head. The descriptivists argue that a living language grows and evolves; some words die and others are born. Jack Lynch has written a fascinating account of how ¿proper¿ English came to be and the continuing debate over how or whether language change can be controlled. From Samuel Johnson¿s great dictionary through Noah Webster¿s revolutionary spelling reforms, on to James Murray¿s masterful realization of the Oxford English Dictionary and the 1960s controversy over Webster¿s Third New International Dictionary, this account of the history of lexicography will enthrall word buffs, pedants, and general readers.
Magus_Manders on LibraryThing 10 months ago
English is a very, very funny language, and there's no sign of it changing any time soon; or, perhaps, it is so funny because it is in constant change. This is the gist of Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma.Lynch, a clearly formidable English scholar, is a linguistic realist as he takes the reader through the history of the English language. Rather than closely examine its origins or structure, however, the author highlights the many people who have attempted to quantify, qualify, and rectify this hectic tongue of ours. This study ranges from William Caxton -- who first put English into print, to Noah Webster and his revolutionary American dictionary, to the unflagging (and often unqualified) language mavens of modern publishing. Though every generation has those individuals who want to change English, either by making it more logical or keeping it 'pure', the constantly changing norma loquendi always seems to win out. Ultimately, the rules of English and grammar are more guidelines of etiquette than set in stone, according to Lynch.The Lexicographer's Dilemma is a rousing popular history of something that nearly all English speakers take for granted -- our native tongue. Lynch has a great love of language and shows it with his wit and wordplay throughout. It is not uncommon for him to assume a very familiar and casual tone with the reader: something upsetting for a history but very appropriate in this light, but not at all shallow, volume. There are points towards the middle where he loses some steam and ends up circling in doldrums of conflicting definitions, but this quickly clears up and returns to smooth and entertaining sailing. The Lexicographer's Dilemma is an excellent read, and extremely informative regarding how English came to be treated as it is now. Those looking for a guidebook for 'proper' English will be disappointed, but those wondering how much stock they should put in the prohibition against split-infinitives will be quite pleased.
Kellswitch on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. History is my favorite topic and I love books that not only teach me about the topic it's based on, but about connected things and issues and the world and times in which they happened. This book does this many times over.I knew some of the historical facts mentioned and highlighted in this book, but I had never seen them in this context before and made me see and understand things in a new way, there were many ah ha! and now I see! moments through out this book.It is well written in an easy to follow and understand way, you don't need to be an expert in language or study it's usage to learn from and enjoy this book, it is highly accessible to anyone interested in words and language.This topic could have easily become try dry or detailed and boring, but at no point did it do this for me, I was highly entertained as well as educated by every chapter.And as someone who has struggled with spelling all her writing and reading life, I can finally understand how our language got as crazy as it did and still be proud that we have managed to resist all attempts to reign it in...even if I suffered for it.
szarka on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I'll admit it: I'm a word-nerd. But even if you're not the sort of person who reads Fowler for fun, there's much here to delight anyone who loves language. If you've ever wondered what that "p" is doing in "receipt", or argued with a friend over the status of "ain't", you're sure to enjoy this book.The "dilemma" in the title refers to the tension between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to English usage and grammar: between documenting the way English is actually written or spoken and enforcing someone's idea of "proper" English. Although he's also the author of The English Language: A User's Guide, Lynch is no narrow-minded prescriptivist. As he writes in the concluding chapter: "Speaking and writing our own language shouldn't be a chore; we should resist all attempts to make us feel ashamed of speaking the way the rest of the world speaks." At the same time, Lynch treats the oft-maligned "18th-century grammarians" fairly, presenting them as more than caricatures and giving historical context for their efforts.The Lexicographer's Dilemma is fascinating because it touches on so many subjects in the course of exploring this central theme: from the great dictionaries and the people who edited them to the vagaries of English orthography and the many, futile attempts to reform it; from Dryden and Swift to George Carlin. Though I found the final three chapters less interesting (and a bit preachy), I found most of the book as gripping as a well-plotted novel. I also learned a great deal, despite a life-long fascination with the subject matter and a shelf full of similar books. Finally, Lynch's own writing is clear and full of good humor.Lynch covers much ground in under 300 pages, but I did find one omission surprising: although he discusses split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, he remains silent on the ever-controversial third-person indefinite singular pronoun. A balanced, informed discussion of the history behind "he" vs. "they" would make a valuable addition to the book.In short: here's a book about English that's more fun than a barrel full of monkeys typing Shakespeare!
dandi on LibraryThing 10 months ago
What a fantastic book! This history illuminates the social and historical context surrounding the origins, evolution, and current state of the English language. As a sociologist I was fascinated by the detailed examination of how changes in English society, then American society, and now world society have led to shifts in the language. As a lover of the written word and sometime pedant I appreciate the great detail included in Lynch's examinations of the rules of spelling and grammar. I have even been inspired to loosen my prescriptive ways and brazenly split the occasional infinitive. Although it reads more like a collection of stories and skips around in time a bit, Lynch covers his ground very thoroughly and in entertaining style.
dpbrewster on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A learned yet accessible book on the modern history of the English language, which gloriously has resisted true standardization to this day -- which allows it to remain alive and to be enjoyed by George Carlin no less than William Safire. Explains the tension between "norma loquendi" and the "King's English", between the descriptive and the prescriptive. I particularly enjoyed the deep dive into the nature of certain iconic grammatical "rules", how they came to be, and why they are usually ill-founded. Usage is what ultimately matters, and Henry Watson Fowler's (and his followers, such as Strunk and White) instructions to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid can hardly be improved on. Lynch provides us with five grounds to object to a word, phrase or usage: taste, authority, etymology, analogy, and logic. Always appropriate to keep in mind when speaking or writing.
FionaCat on LibraryThing 10 months ago
An entertaining history of the futile attempt to regulate the English language. From the first attempts to regularize spelling to the grammar manuals that tried to make English follow Latin rules, through the debate over whether a dictionary should be descriptive (cataloging the words people actually use) or proscriptive (cataloging the words people should use), this is a fun book for anyone who loves language.
cwells on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The Lexicographer¿s Dilemma is essentially a history of standard English. Lynch anchors his text in Samuel Johnson¿s eighteenth century with fairly frequent allusions to the Renaissance and occasionally to the Middle Ages. Following the development of dictionaries, thesauruses and other linguistically-focused texts intended for the general public, Lynch demonstrates the longevity of the feud between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. As one might expect, the prescriptivists are largely concerned with dictating how one should speak and clearly defining ¿correct¿ usage. The descriptivists, on the other hand, argue that there is no right way to speak; the duty of the lexicographer is to describe the norma loquendi, how people actually speak.After a few chapters, it becomes clear that reader will be captive to a recapitulation of the prescriptivist-descriptivist argument within different historical epochs and among different historical figures for the duration of the text. To be fair, this divide has structured most of the major linguistic controversies in history, but Lynch never expands the debate past its most technical parameters. Each linguistic revolutionary and reactionary begins to seem interchangeable with his (and more on this soon) counterpart from a different century because Lynch is aiming for breadth, rather than depth. The Lexicographer¿s dilemma is composed of very readable, conversational prose. As alluded to above, Lynch provides narrative, rather then than an analytical engagement with his subject. He very stably focuses on the immediate conditions of ¿standard English¿ with occasional references to socio-political context. But these references never become a central concern. Every chapter is subtitled, and each subtitle identifies a key player the domain of lexicography. It is a troubling list that goes without comment: John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Priestley, Noah Webster, James Murray, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Watson Fowler, Philip Gove, and George Carlin. True, standard English has historically been within the domain white male control, but it certainly does not mean that it is reducible to white male prescriptivism. This is in part due to Lynch¿s scope: he limits himself to dominant narrative. Still, for all his discussion of dictionaries, Lynch fails to mention that the first dictionaries where written (by men) for women. For more on this see ¿Dictionary English and the Female Tongue¿ by Juliet Fleming.Despite my political reservations, The Lexicographer¿s Dilemma is informative and generally enjoyable. Lynch¿s narrative, while restrictive in content, is a fine introduction to the unwieldy beast of language and the futile (and often amusing) attempts to tame it.
Galorette on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Unless you're an academic lexicographer, you know that "ain't" isn't a word. If you are an academic lexicographer, you know that "ain't" is a word in common usage with a clear and readily understood meaning. And you might be puzzled as to why anybody would insist it is not a word. The Lexicographer's Dilemma this quandry. English was not standardized until relatively recently. Where does the impulse to standardize language come from? Why do we dedicate so many resources to it? When did this start and where will it end?
jsoos on LibraryThing 10 months ago
JAck Lynch poses two questions in The Lexicographer's Dilemna; what does "proper" English mean?, and who gets to say what is right? He leads us through a series of biographical and historical sketches of people who tried to "fix or improve" English through the years (the lexicographers), from Dryden to Shaw. These men of words come in two versions (the dilemna) prescriptivists and descriptivists. Through this discussion, he traces the major lexicographical works of English, from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to the Oxford English Dictionary. On the surface, this may seem to be a dry discussion - but Lynch presents the material in an engaging and interesting manner - it makes me want to read some the individual biographies for these great lexicographers.I found the first 7-8 chapters extrememly engaging, but it seems to drift off of significant dictionaries into some related (grammar, speech, vulgar language, ebonics and texting) discussions. All worthwhile, however, I really enjoyed the presentation of material via biographical view, a format that is not adhered to in the later chapters.All-in-all, a pretty good read and interesting material.
tracylulu on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The audience for the book is obviously limited, but for those who pick up the Lexicographer's Dilemma it is an engaging read filled with wit and clever anecdotes to liven up what could be a dry topic. Whether you adhere strictly to the English rules you were taught in grade school, or simply love to break them, Jack Lynch has crafted a book for all lovers of the written and spoken word.
EowynA on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I saw this book in the Early Reviewer list, but did not snag a copy. So I bought one when it came out. This is a clear, readable review of the English Language through the lens of the various dictionaries and grammars written about English, and their writers -- the lexicographers of the title. The dilemma referred to in the title is whether dictionaries and grammars should be descriptive, documenting how the language is used, or prescriptive, taking a stand on how the language should be used. In general, it appears that the dictionary writers tend to describe, and the grammar writers tend to prescribe, though that is an overgeneralization on this reviewer's part. The prescriptivists provide those "rules" like "don't end a sentence with a preposition" and "ain't is not a word". This book provided a history of where these rules came from, and who first espoused them. In essence, some came from applying grammar rules from other languages, perceived as being of higher status or "more perfect", like Latin, to English. Others came from a desire to make one's language usage sound like that of the aristocracy. There are other reasons as well, with names attached, providing a history.The descriptivists describe how the language is and was used in practice. These dictionary makers have examples that show prepositions are sometimes found at the end of sentences, and that "ain't" is still used in some contexts. Then there is the reaction of the public and pundits to the descriptions of things they don't agree with. If a dictionary shows an example of a phrase that has now become a word, such as "pot-bellied" to "potbellied" - is the dictionary wrong to show what is being done, rather than what the particular reviewer thinks is the Right Way?A fun book that shows how flexible the English language is, and how people perceive its usage. I enjoyed the reading, and am willing to be a bit more flexible in the future about grammar.
alana_leigh on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Oh English. A daunting language whose rules are many. Jack Lynch dives head first into the insanity of the English language, providing delightful insight for those of us who belong to the specific club of grammar nerds. Add this to your shelf of fascinating nonfiction studies, where the author's tone is at once casual and informative. He goes through a history of dictionaries and the people who try to catalog the English language, recognizing that while it's necessary, it's also a bit fruitless. A language needs to be a living, breathing, changing entity in order to survive. This is not to say that we do not need rules, but Lynch seems firmly placed in the "they're guidelines" camp. Lynch clearly loves the detailed rules, and so anyone interested in actually reading a book about the English language and grammar can certainly appreciate his perspective.If this sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means, rush out for a copy. You shall not be disappointed.
collsers on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Disclaimer: I am a confessed member of the grammar police. Lynch's book showed me where many of our grammar rules that I am so adamant about came from. With clear writing and interesting examples, he has made me reconsider why I feel so strongly about rules that are fairly recent. This book is highly informative and entertaining.
bgknighton on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This book is for anyone who has ever wondered about the development of English and how it got where it is today. Lexicographers have the dilemma when writing a dictionary of telling how a word is used or telling how it should be used. This book tells how lexicographers through the ages have made their decisions and why. I find the why the most interesting, personally. This book can be a little bit of a slow read in spots, but I would recommend it for anyone who finds the English language and its history interesting. English is a language that is always in transition, so a lexicographer's job is a bit like describing Shrodinger's cat.
nabhill on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The Lexicographer¿s Dilemma is an easily accessible history of efforts to record and standardize the English language. Jack Lynch writes fascinating stories about the compilation of English language dictionaries, about efforts to standardize English, and about rules of grammar. While recording the influences of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Priestley, Noah Webster, James Murray, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Watson Fowler, Philip Gove, and even George Carlin, Mr. Lynch presents the dilemma. Should lexicographers prescribe the ¿correct¿ approach to language (prescriptivist) or describe the way language is actually used (descriptivist)? ¿ Jack Lynch has written an enjoyable and entertaining history; one need not be a language buff to appreciate this book.
erin1 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Like the reviewer below, I too am a word nerd and found this book fascinating. Unlike other languages, English language does not have an regulating authority on proper usage the effect of which are felt to this day. Jack Lynch must be commended on his research and I found the organization of the information easy to follow. While I found the book highly entertaining and the history of our language surprising, the author could get mired in the minutiae (four pages on split infinitives anyone?), but these instances were few and far between. Overall, I though the book was interesting and clarified our weird, wonderful language.
meggyweg on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is a delightful book, an excellent work of linguistic/historical scholarship with a sense of humor as well. I particularly enjoyed the author's descriptions of various linguistic authorities duking it out over what is or is not "proper" English and what should or should not be in a dictionary. At one point he say something like, "To some people, putting the word ain't in the dictionary would be like giving America's nuclear launch codes to Nikita Kruschev."I learned a lot from this book. I have recommended it to some friends who are interested in language, and I would read this author again.
bell7 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
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.
tangborn on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is a very accessible book that gives the evolution of both the English language, and the controversies surrounding it's evolution, from Chaucer to the present. I don't think this is so much an apology for the changes that are happening, as an explanation as to why it happens. The author makes an excellent case for emphasizing the importance of the clarity of writing, rather than simply following rules for their own sake.
paradoxosalpha on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The dilemma of the title is the conflict between the lexicographer's duty to describe language as it is actually used, and the public's demand for rules and direction in English usage. Lynch exposes the frustrated will-to-power of prescriptivist grammarians, pundits, mavens, and language reformers of all periods--along with the egalitarian naivete of descriptivist lexicographers. The approach is historical, with a preamble regarding the origins of human language and the beginnings of English, and then an evenly-paced coverage from the 17th century into the 21st, most often through biographical lenses. There is attention to both British and American English, as well as reflection on the further global spread of the language. The final chapter discusses the current stresses, mutations, and creativity resulting from technological change and globalization, while a penultimate chapter delves into linguistic obscenity as a special topic.The style is accessible throughout, both assuming and encouraging the curiosity of the reader. This book should be enjoyable to any reader of English who cares about the language, and as Lynch seems to demonstrate, that's just about any reader of English.
HippieLunatic on LibraryThing 10 months ago
As a non-academic, lover of language, this was a spectacular read. I enjoyed Lynch's exploration of the history of English, giving me examples of the changes that my language has seen in the past, and letting me know that there are certainly more changes to come.The Lexicographer's Dilemma was filled with eye-opening pieces of history which made me appreciate the rules I had learned while under the influence of public education, but it also helped to give me insight into many other pieces of communication... such as "okay." There are issues I had with the book. Sure, the pages are filled with plenty of history, but the flow seems to leave a little to be desired, from this reader at least. Perhaps a more strict time-line approach would have made for a more logical read. Lynch follows a theory approach, which I could appreciate on its own, though not being well versed in all of the historical figures, it was difficult for me to pair contrasting and concurrent linguists. (Even an appendix with referenced linguists on a time line would have helped.)All in all, I loved this book for encouraging me to not become quite so disheartened each time I make a mistake that many of the teachers in my past would find far below my capabilities. And yet, I can't help but hope I've caught all of the obvious ones in this review.
christine.schrader on LibraryThing 10 months ago
The Lexicographer¿s Dilemma, Jack Lynch¿s often entertaining, seldom overly judgmental ode to the often odd and always active English language, gives an energetic account of the ¿evolution of proper English from Shakespeare to South Park.¿ Lynch shines as storyteller-historian in the first nine engaging chapters, serving as a trustworthy and humorous guide through the often half-fictionalized history of our native tongue. Being a bit of a traditional grammar grouch myself (except, of course, when I feel grammar undermines my own style), I felt increasingly uneasy as he mounted a subtle but pointed offensive against prescriptivist grammarians of all colors, from William Safire to Lynne Truss (whose book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, was targeted with an almost frightening precision to my exact demographic¿secret punctuation fascists and semi-colon worshippers who rip apart every Facebook profile, Wikipedia article, and possibly purposeful proofreading error in postmodernist literature with a zeal tantamount to actual violence) to (gasp!) Strunk and White, those mighty shapers of style. I started to suspect that perhaps something was rotten in the state of Denmark, and that something was not a split infinitive or a sentence ending in a preposition, but those very rules themselves. As a writer I have often run into the debacle of obeying strict grammatical edicts¿because sometimes they just don¿t sound right. In those situations, I am probably more likely to listen to my ear than the rule, for all of my huffing and puffing over constant ellipses use where a single period could do, for God¿s sake. But maybe my refusal to replace a ¿you¿ with a ¿u¿ in a text message was not, as I had always suspected, evidence of my inherent superiority over the knuckle-draggers around me, but actually a refusal to move forward with the legitimate evolution of language. Maybe the exceptions¿when I was willing to break the rules¿were really the genuine article: English as it was meant to be, or at least as it actually is. Lynch inspired all of these musings during his thorough and fascinating tour of all things English: from John Dryden¿s attempts to ¿return¿ English to the classical grammatical structures of Latin and Greek to the legendary creation of Samuel Johnson¿s dictionary; from the (perhaps not-so-) evil rule of the oft-despised eighteenth century grammarians to the modern era of the Oxford English Dictionary (swoon!), Webster¿s many editions, and the Victorian influence on our linguistic commandments. I was willingly and happily led down this merry path, full of both well-known stories and language lore and a treasure trove of small details and important, largely forgotten historical moments of change in English that have impacted us in enormous ways, reported with an impressively understated and conversational narrative style that never slipped into boring lecture mode. Where Lynch lost his way (and my attention, at least to a degree) was when he started to discuss prescriptivism and descriptivism as an actual debate in the present; clearly he sides with the descriptivists in most every way, but he bends over backward in an attempt to seem unbiased that is as awkward as it is ineffective. In the more politically charged chapters about Ebonics and objectionable language, he proceeds by fits and starts; at times seeming to take one side and then the other, while ending both with unsatisfying conclusions that don¿t go far enough in either direction to justify their inclusion at the end of this otherwise excellent work. Maybe in a few years Lynch will have either the distance or the passion to effectively write about these newer issues in a way that will sustain interest; here they seem tacked on and unnecessary, like someone requested that Lynch add something to make this book speak to more current issues. Lynch should stick to discoursing about what he clearly enjoys: the sometimes tortuous historical under
ashmolean1 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is really a history of correct English usage and abuse written by an English Professor from Rutgers.He discusses the importance of Johnson and Webster in laying down the foundations of correct usage after centuries of laissez faire English. He then comes down on the side of believing that language evolves and changes as opposed to those who want to keep things as they are and demand correct usage. A lively entertaining account of the subject which will appeal to many different academics, students and teachers as well as the layman.