Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Fight for English

Professor David Crystal is one of the world's foremost experts on the English language. The author of over 100 books, he also runs an acclaimed website with his son called Shakespeare's Words and has just launched a new blog. We got curious when we came across David's latest book, called The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, his answer to the best-selling "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." Fight for English? We called David at his home in Great Britain to discuss his book, and the state of the English language.

VT: First, why are punctuation books so popular?

David: There was a 250 year period from the middle of the 18th century to about the 1960's where the prescriptivism approach to English grammar ruled. Everybody who went to school, including me, were taught that if you followed certain rules then you'd be okay. If you didn't split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions and all those things, you'd have control of Standard English. You'd know where you were in life. You could demonstrate you were educated. Then, in the 1960's, formal grammar teaching went out the window for a whole host of reasons that I discuss in the book.

Two generations went by, in Britain at least, where nobody got any formal grammar teaching in school, or for that matter, formal teaching on punctuation, vocabulary and spelling or anything. They got sporadic stuff but nothing systematic. So you had two generations of people who had grown up with no formal grammar training and yet they were living in a society dominated by people who did have all that grammar training.

VT: So what happened?

David: These generations were made to feel very, very inferior. Now fast forward to the 1990's when kids in school began learning the new national curriculum, which brought formal language study back into school, but in a much more enlightened way than in the old days. Kids were once again becoming aware of language. The middle generations were desperately looking for something to help them compete with both the old generation and the new one. Out comes a book which says punctuation can solve all their problems. So they bought it.

VT: What is this enlightened way that students have been using to learn language?

David: It isn't prescriptivism now. Now it's about understanding the varieties of the English language that exist in the world and appreciating them all. This includes Standard English, of course, but it also encompasses regional dialects and accents.

VT: How does this fit in with what's considered "proper usage?"

David: There will probably always be a debate about proper usage because language always changes and variation is a fact of life. As soon as you get two people who differ in their usages for whatever reason, whether they come from different parts of the country or different social classes or different ethnic groups, there's going to be a row.

Language is something that everybody holds strong opinions about because they grew up with a certain usage that's part of their identity. As soon as you come into contact with somebody who speaks differently from you, or writes differently from you, then there's a kind of unconscious threat. I think one of the principles of modern education is to teach children that in fact there isn't a threat here. These differences are actually an opportunity to explore diversity in a very creative and productive way.

VT: A lot of folks are pointing to the way people communicate on the Internet, for example, as evidence of a collapse of language.

David: I don't see this as a collapse of language at all. All I see here is language adapting itself to a new set of technological circumstances and expanding its expressive range in a way that it's never done before. The older varieties of English are still there. The fact that you and I might spell differently or punctuate differently when sending emails to each other doesn't affect the way in which we would actually write letters to each other formally or write our next articles for some publication.

VT: So the Internet isn't such a bad thing for language?

David: We've learned from history that the technology has allowed us to do new things with language. The Internet is a young technology but it has caused language to suddenly acquire new dimensions of usage that it never had before. Every technology does this.

Printing brought in new dimensions of usage in the 15th century. The telephone did this in the 19th century. Broadcasting did it in the early 20th century. Just think of all the varieties of usage on radio and television that have come into existence because of those technologies. But with each advance there have been prophets of doom who have said, you know, "printing is the invention of the devil," "the telephone is the breakdown of society" and "broadcasting is the way we'll all be brainwashed." Now naysayers are proclaiming that the Internet is allowing all the rules of language to go through the floor. But the truth is the Internet is such a new technology that I think people are still in a transitional period. They're getting used to it.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.