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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language - Patricia T. O'Conner, Stewart Kellerman The English language is a slippery chameleon; it won't stop changing. As with any human activity subject to change, there are the conservatives, the liberals and the oblivious people. Into this fray the husband wife team of Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman have authored this book to make fun of the snobbish scholars who insist that English follow false rules. But they don't throw out all the rules.

This book includes humorous quips and puns to keep the reader smiling. The authors seem to enjoy skewering many long held rules and misconceptions about the English language. They reveal why some of grammar's best-known "rules" aren't-and never were-rules at all. They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn't necessarily purer. And in some cases they suggest following some rules simply to avoid negative judgments of others.

One of my pet causes regarding the language is to promote the acceptance of the use of the plural pronouns "they" to refer to technically singular words. This allows avoidance of the gender specific pronouns "he" and "she." The book agrees that for hundreds of years, people used "they", "them," or their to refer to people in general, whether one or more, male or female. They also admit that nobody seems to worry about the versatility of the word "you" which can be both singular or plural. Nevertheless, the authors are noticeably reluctant to accept the practice of using "they" for a singular pronoun as indicated in this quotation. "I'm not entirely satisfied with the alternative available, ..."

On the other hand the authors promote the splitting of infinities with reckless abandon. On that subject I'm a bit on the reluctant side, mostly because I'm afraid of what people people will think of me.

One thing I take from this book is that it's more important to be understood than to be correct. A good example of this is the difference between "inflamable" (combustable) and "unflamable (not combustable)." "Inflamable" is so widely misunderstood that caution warning signs can't use it. Another example is "disinterested" and "uninterested" (they're not synonyms).

Problems seems to start when a word starts being overused. An example is "hopefully." This book indicates that it has been used as an adverbial sentence modifier since the 40s with no objections. But in recent years its use has exploded, and the grammarians are up in arms as a result.

And so it goes, this book is filled with numerous discussions of language issues and figures of speech. It's an interesting read.

Now that English has become the de-facto international language in a world where the number of non-native English speakers outnumber the native English speakers, it can be expected that even more frequent changes and variations will occur in the future. I expected it to be an exciting ride.

Review from 2012 PageADay book lover's calendar:
A liberating and refreshing invitation to boldly split infinitives. And begin sentences with conjunctions. It was good enough for Shakespeare! Bold and witty, irreverent and highly convincing, Origins propounds above all the theory that “it’s better to be understood than to be correct.”
ORIGINS OF THE SPECIOUS: MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman (Random House, 2009)