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The Language Wars

Henry Hitchings’s previous works include a biography of the man he wrote his PhD thesis on, Dr Samuel Johnson. Here he turns to the history of disputes about what constitutes good English. To call it warfare is to seriously overstate matters — nobody has ever manned a barricade in defence of the right to split an infinitive — but publishers do like catchpenny titles.

The cover of Henry Hitching's book 'The Language Wars'

He unpacks the history of proper usage, occasionally diverting to offer up examples from other languages as mirrors to English. He shows that complaints about the decline of our language are almost always illogical, that later generations frequently find the view of pundits to be either irrelevant or risible and that attempts to hold back change are futile. He is sympathetic to the view that there is nothing absolute about grammar; its rules are not laws of nature but conventional beliefs which are modified through changing fashion and shifting everyday use.

Debate over meaning and standards isn’t peculiar to our times. But today’s prescribers and proscribers may be surprised to learn for how many centuries the idea of good usage has been debated and how much standards have varied. As one example, the apostrophe has been the subject of unending debate since it was first used in English in 1559 (the next century, John Donne could write “any mans death diminishes me” without needing it). Writers in the early eighteenth century used it to mark the plurals of nouns. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that usage settled down. Today’s mistakes with it aren’t a sudden eruption of ignorance but a continuation of misunderstandings and differences of opinion that are centuries old. The author believes the apostrophe is likely to disappear, not least through a desire for crisper design and less cluttered pages.

The value of individual words has long been debated, often with a sense that there are good words and bad words. The history of such objections shows how ill-judged most of them are. Eric Partridge hated economic. Fowler objected to gullible, antagonise, placate and transpire. Last century, as they became known through the talkies and other imports, British writers complained about Americanisms such as reliable, lengthy, curvaceous, hindsight and mileage. In 1978, the Lake Superior University Banned Words unavailingly deprecated parenting and medication. Conversely, many Words of the Year selections (pod slurping, locavore) show that the usual fate of new words, even fashionable ones, is obscurity.

We all speak more than one variety of the language. We pitch our vocabulary and style to suit our hearers, whether those are our children, our friends, our colleagues or the unseen readership of public prose. Standard English has the highest prestige, the one appropriate to formal communication, and the one we need to master if we’re to be taken seriously in that world. But it’s useless to apply the rules of standard English to the informal registers of conversation or of slang and dialect. Hitchings argues that — in spite of widespread condemnation — instant messaging, textspeak, with all its abbreviations, informality and often casual disregard for the rules of the standard language, doesn’t degrade English. He contends that the people who use it are easily able to distinguish it from the language needed in an essay or report.

Some parts of The Language Wars will be familiar to anyone who has read previous works on the evolution of language. But Hitchings provides a wealth of examples to illustrate his points. He writes well and is never dull. Even if you’re predisposed to disagree with him, he’s worth reading.

[The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings, published by John Murray in the UK on 3 Feb. 2010; hardback, pp408, including index and bibliography; publisher’s UK price, £17.99; ISBN 978-1-84854-208-2.]

Page created 26 Feb. 2011

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