Dog Eared

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Henry Hitchings Wins "The Language Wars"

I am a lazy but honest man, so I have to admit my first thought when looking at the The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings was not so noble. Noting the lengthiness (300+ pages) and a small font size, I thought, "Uh oh. Why did I agree to review this? I could be watching Justified." 

As I plowed into the book, my fears turned out to be unwarranted. In fact, my fears turned out to be ridiculous, as fears tend to be. This book — which, ambitiously, traces the history of the English language through the lens of people complaining about it — is one of the most entertaining such books I've ever read. Paradoxically, Hitchings' history of complaints leaves me straining for anything to complain about: this book is a must-read for word nerds.

Having said that, I suppose this book isn't for everyone. The Language Wars will likely make folks on one side of that war — prescriptivists — go ape. Why? Maybe because Hitchings likes to describe prescriptivism as "...in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false clarifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance." Then there are characterizations of prescriptivists like this: "A misused semicolon or stray comma will cause some people the same violent distaste I might feel on witnessing, say, a puppy being tortured." I have a feeling the Eats, Shoots & Leaves crowd won't enjoy reading themselves so savagely spoofed.

Some of Hitchings' speculations are equally liable to annoy some readers (while entertaining the pants off others). For example, while bouncing back and forth between historical events and the present, Hitchings lands on just about every consternation-causing bugaboo, including the "Should you end a sentence with a preposition?" mess. After identifying 17th-century poet John Dryden as the father of the anti-preposition commandment, Hitchings adds his own psychoanalysis: "He (Dryden) favours a style in which there is a careful and faithful collusion between male and female qualities. It is, in short, chaste. This may help explain why the dangling preposition had to be eliminated. For it is anything but chaste — a slovenly provocation, leaving a sentence gaping open rather than decently closed." If you like that sort of thing, you will love this book as much as I do.

Hitchings is the kind of writer who makes you — and by "you" I mean "me" — want to quote him early and often. Good God, he's got a way with words. The only other word maven or linguist who is nearly this witty is Geoffrey Pullum, whose Language Log pieces and book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax should be required reading for anyone hoping to write about language with style and humor as well as scholarship and seriousness. Hitchings also reminds me of the similarly named and sadly departed Christopher Hitchens, who also knew how to build a strong argument while making every sentence an unpredictable ride.

Despite my gushing about Hitching's prose, please don't assume The Language Wars is more style than substance. The thoroughness of the research is Olympian, and anyone who cares about English will learn facts and perspectives that are illuminating about how we think and talk about English today. A common theme is how our gripes about language are usually a substitute for deeper, uglier motives. As Hitchings writes, "The naming and shaming of words that offend us is also a naming and shaming of people — or, more often, types of people — we find distasteful." In other words, we may say "I hate teenage slang!" when our true feelings are "I hate teenagers!" Language peeving is full of hypocrisy as well. In reference to the oft-heard call for clear, honest language, Hitchings writes, "Plain English is what we demand of others, while merrily carrying on with our own not-so-plainness."

But if Hitchings exposes the fraudulent, ignoble nature of language peeving, he also recognizes that we're all peevers sometimes. Though our complaints about language often stem from ugliness such as racism and patriotism — yes, I consider the two equally awful — there is something utterly human and unavoidable about such feelings. Hitchings makes a powerful statement here: "The basic psychology of legislating language is that it allows us to believe we can control our destiny." Striving for a smidgen of control in a chaotic, bonkers universe is a fool's quest we're all on. (Sorry, Mr. Dryden.)

Ultimately, Hitchings' history lessons are optimistic and even inspiring. Though even the best of us tend to be fussy, prissy, cranky whiners when blathering about language, we should and could blather better. As Hitchings writes, "We tend to discuss it (English) in a cantankerous or petulant way, but thinking and talking about what makes good English good and bad English bad can be, and should be, a pleasure." When reading Hitchings, those pleasures are obvious.


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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:

Monday April 16th 2012, 10:38 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Mr. Peter's language war is always attractive. Weather it is expressed in "plainness" English, or in a review form or in a euphemism tone.
I enjoyed this war topic and thanks for the presentation.

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