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Ammon Shea's Anti-Peeving Manifesto is Bad News for Bullies

Ammon Shea's enjoyable, witty new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation shows that English isn't really bad at all — despite what legions of gripers and nitpickers have to say. Armed with facts and historical context, Shea gives readers an informed and enjoyable tour of the issues that annoy people the most about language.

Along the way, there are chapters titled Words That Are Not Words, Verbing Nouns, Sins of Grammar, and The Continuing Deterioration of the Language. Each chapter covers a variety of so-called language ills, providing thorough context for each issue, along with reasonable advice about whether a peeve (such as rejecting "Hopefully" at the beginning of a sentence) is sensible or not. If there's a gripe you've ever heard or had about English, chances are Shea covers it.

For example, irregardless is one of the most persistently despised words; it often inspires that nonsensical complaint "It's not a word!" But as Shea shows, there are plenty of words that are just as unnecessary or redundant as irregardless. If the primary complaint is that we already have the perfectly fine word regardless, why is no one bothered by inhabitable, which means the same as habitable? Why is invaluable an acceptable word that doesn't make you sound like an idiot, even though it's just as unnecessary as irregardless? Shea demonstrates that there's no logic whatever behind the dislike for irregardless, and I suspect the dislike is mostly an insincere type of posing. People think smart people should hate irregardless and bash people who use it, so that's what people do to try to sound smart. Shea shows that this is actually pretty dumb.

In case after case, Shea decimates myopic, mean-spirited, under-researched approaches to English — and yes, I just used decimate in a way that annoys some who cling to an old, out-of-use sense of the term. Time and again, Shea shows that such opinions are unsupported by facts and extremely irrational. Over and over, aggravated language mavens, so impressed by their own knowledge, turn out to not be so knowledgeable after all. Some of his examples are startling: I certainly didn't expect a defense of Dan Quayle's famous use of potatoe, but when you consider how often the word has been spelled that way over time, it's hard to justify being so hard on the former vice president.

But let's face it: language peevologists tend to be jerks, and I dearly appreciate Shea taking them on. He's the lexical equivalent of Buffy Summers facing down a herd of vampires or Spider-Man clobbering Peter Parker's former bullies.

In fact, this whole book appears to have been a retort to language snobs who were jerks to Shea while he was promoting his last book, the wonderful Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. I'm gobsmacked that anyone could quibble about Shea's language, because he is wonderfully witty and precise with a dry sense of humor, as seen here: "One would think that centuries of pronouncements of doom unaccompanied by any actual loss of ability to communicate would give some measure of comfort. Such has not been the case." He is also full of self-deprecating comments, such as, "There is really no way for me to make the description of elliptical subordinate clauses a sexy and engaging topic, so I will cease boring the reader and move on." It's a shame Shea had to endure petty comments about insignificant trivia, but it all appears to have worked out, since Shea's own peeves with the peevers produced this enjoyable book.

Though Shea is, in a way, nitpicking the nitpickers, he's also aware that, "We all have linguistic shibboleths, standards of usage that we hold dear and use to make ourselves feel better about our language (and worse about the language of others)." Just to show how common word rage is, Shea ends with an extremely entertaining section called "221 Words That Were Once Frowned Upon." This is a glorious list of words I was shocked to learn were once shocking, such as ice cream, bogus, and ad, which Alfred Ayres pooh-poohed in 1894: "This abbreviation for the word advertisement is very justly considered a gross vulgarism. It is doubtful whether it is permissible under any circumstances."

This list reminded me of one of my favorite books: Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time, which collects scathing reviews of the greatest composers in the history of Western classical music. Many of those composers are attacked with the same misguided gusto peevers apply to words. Just as some find words inelegant, enfeebling or degrading, music critics have used expressions such as "tortured mistuned cackling," "psychic deterioration," "pandemonium of cross-eyed devils," and "bomb in poultry yard" for compositions that would become classics. New music, new words, and new anything tend be loathed, then accepted. Back at the dawn of mankind, I wouldn't be surprised if someone had lambasted the first cave painting as "revolting" and "the end of pre-civilization" and "ook."

Shea has done a terrific job of cutting through superstition and hearsay with fact after fact. If you're annoyed by so-called language lovers whose love consists of crabbing about everything, you will love this book. If you're one of the crabs...well, you might not love this book. But if you're a reasonable crab, Shea might soften your feelings toward a pet peeve or two.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 27th 2014, 9:43 AM
Comment by: James R.
Some people need to be more relaxed and playful with language. Other people need to straighten up a little bit. Snobbery is necessary to remind people that there are rules being broken. In all aspects of society, rules often need breaking, but most of the time rules make life bearable. The bottom line, as you and Shea point out, is that communication has survived quite well.
Saturday June 28th 2014, 6:21 PM
Comment by: Michael C. (Lansing, MI)
There's snobbery and then there's plain wrong.

There's theirs
your you're
to two too
using apostrophes for plurals: plural's

Irregardless, I could go on and on.

Hopefully, you see my point.
Sunday June 29th 2014, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Mary C A.
I would like for members of the media to pronounce data, status, and processes correctly. is it being a language snob to expect that from a couple of Rhodes scholars? I just heard processeeze again last night.

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