Hitchings, Henry. The language wars: A history of proper English

Hodder & Stoughton, $39.99

Last week, among the twitter-dross following Charlie Sheen’s hashtags, popped this pearler: “gonna get my nails did #winning :)”.

One random example of many. Surely a travesty to the English language, to be deplored by a serious literary commentator?

But poster boy for the literary geek set, Henry Hitchings, would be fine with that tweet. Down with it, even. After all, English belongs to all, not just the grammar police.

Hitchins’ use of the word “proper” in the title of his latest book is deliberately provocative. What has been considered proper, in English, has been in flux for the history of this language.

All language is fluid, evolving with its speakers, picking up habits from international visitors. Even rules that some hold as gospel have not always been thus: witness the misuse of apostrophes with possessive pronouns. Today, “it’s” only means “it is”. But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hitchings writes, “it’s” was acceptable as the possessive form of “its”. Even Shakespeare used it.

Hichins describes two camps of literary theorists: the progressive literary descriptivists, who are happy to document what a stodgy grammarian may call language’s decline, and the prescriptivists, who would much rather tell you the rules. He sides with the former: the young punks, the digital-age abbreviators, even, sometimes (gasp!), the Americans.

Sniffy dismissal of tired old standards (splitting an infinitive, ending a sentence with a preposition) complement a thorough historical account, from first dictionaries and grammars through Fowler to contemporary notions of language’s perceived ability to bend thought.

Perhaps the use of the term ‘wars’ is a trifle histrionic. This is better described as The Language Journeys.



Reviewed March 2011