WHAT IS THE good of books on “proper English?” If you felt self-conscious about the way you spoke in the late nineteenth century, you might throw yourself on the mercy of Oliver Bell Bunce’s guide, from 1883, to good English. Its title, Don’t, is menacingly negative, but at least it promises some definitive rules. “Don’t say lady when you mean wife,” Bunce counsels. “Don’t fail to exercise tact”; “Don’t speak ungrammatically.” The last two examples are curiously roundabout and non-specific, but Henry Hitchings finds them “pernicious.” Writing like Bunce’s, he says, reinforces the unhelpful belief that “the avoidance of mistakes is more important than the achievement of excellence.”
Yet Hitchings’s new book points out all of the ideological pitfalls of debating language use, and he takes pains to avoid falling into them himself. Where Bunce’s aspirational Victorian readers wanted to learn to speak “proper English,” Hitchings’s presumably want to know what their attitude to “proper English” should be. On the first page, Hitchings half apologizes for putting the word “proper” in inverted commas: “I might have deployed them in several other places, save for the suspicion that you would have found them irritating.” This bit of courtesy is tongue-in-cheek, but it is followed by a straight-faced justification: “notions such as ‘proper,’ ‘true meaning’ and ‘regional’ are all contentious.”
Hitchings’s point is not a trivial one. But too often this cautiousness saps the sense of fun suggested by claims such as the following: the history of language disputes, he writes, is “the history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance.” Hitchings admits that he is part of this “mad confederacy,” a racket of writers who thrive on attacking other people’s illogical usage. He winces when he hears someone say “between you and I” instead of “between you and me.” Where Bunce would yell “don’t!” (he wrote under the playful pseudonym “Censor”), Hitchings denies himself an emotional response to the words. “Even as I wince, my inner linguist recognizes that the response is aesthetic and is one which I have been conditioned to express.”
The inner linguist is bound by a descriptivist’s code of honor: instead of instructing people how they should use English, he should simply describe how they tend to use it without making value judgements. This may be more noble than his aesthetic response—which could be to wince, but which could equally be delighted laughter, or sympathy—but it is only the aesthetic response that can persuade someone to change the way he uses language, for better or worse. To use an example that Hitchings quotes, Benedick is wrong-footed by Beatrice’s inventive way of speaking in Much Ado About Nothing. He concedes, “Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy wit.” It is no coincidence that it takes an effort of seduction to bring about a change in the meaning of a word as well as a change of heart in a sparring partner.
Do our aesthetic responses prop up an unfair social order? We promote clever Shakespearean heroines, while we think less of people who, perhaps because they have not had the benefit of an expensive education, do not know that “between you and I” is ungrammatical. This would be a sticking point if our aesthetic responses did not swing wildly between sentiment and aspiration, frivolity and propriety. It was the laborer’s slang, for instance, not the language of the upper classes, that Walt Whitman called the “attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism.” The mild curse “bloody,” meanwhile, has been cherished by Australians for over a century. University of Melbourne students were so outraged that Edward Ellis Morris did not include it in his Austral English: A Dictionary of Australian Words, Phrases and Usages, that when he was honored by the university in 1898, that they staged a mock degree ceremony for “The Great Australian Adjective.” The Sydney-based poet W.T. Goodge wrote a poem by the same name later that year, using the word twenty-nine times. Rhymed with “cuddy,” “muddy,” and “floody,” it starts to look respectable by comparison.
In private, expressiveness is more important than propriety. In his essay “For Freedom of Spelling,” H.G. Wells asked why people “do not grumble more at having to spell correctly.” Although bad-spellers are often mocked, non-standard variants can carry different shades of meaning. “Mygh verrie deare Wyfe,” he argued, is a more tender form of address than “My very dear wife.” And unorthodox or “rococo” spelling, as he called it, lends itself more readily to romantic excess: “For my own part I always spell so with lots of f’s and g’s and such like tailey, twirley, loopey things, when my heart is in the tender vein.”
The best parts of Hitchings’s book focus on opinionated figures such as Wells and resurrect lesser-known, though more outspoken grammarians. Of these, Lindley Murray, the arch-didact of the late eighteenth century, seems the embodiment of our anxieties about language. Although his stated purpose was to aid clear expression, he obsessed over minute details: the distinction between “will” and “shall,” the suffixes -able and -ible, the double ‘l’ in “skill” and the single ‘l’ in “skilful.” He was fussy but inconsistent, leaving readers to decide whether they preferred “expert in” or “expert at.” He did not believe that there was any originality in compiling grammatical rules, though this troubled him, as when he claimed earlier writers had been “plagiarists to me.” There is in his writings, Hitchings suggests, a quality of “littleness”: “in striving for proud certainty he is sometimes comic.”
Just as Murray’s rules reveal his littleness, H.W. Fowler’s brand of pedantry, best exemplified in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage which appeared in 1926, is lively and charming. Fowler was concerned with more than just correct usage. In his guidelines he grasped that the type of language people use reflects their personalities. His avuncular tone gives him the authority to dismiss “parlous” as “a word that wise men leave alone.” And there is some pathos in his verdict on the word “hotel,” which he believed should be pronounced “otel” like its French parent, but this he recognizes “is certainly doomed & is not worth fighting for.” Where Murray’s followers accepted his rules for the sake of self-improvement, Fowler’s are won over by the dignity of his judgments. They are willing to indulge his waywardness: his use of the ampersand instead of the word “and,” which Hitchings finds “fetishistic,” and his preference (with no justification) for “pixy” over “pixie.”
Fowler categorized people as brilliantly as he categorized words. On the vexed subject of whether it is ever excusable to split an infinitive, he gave the definitive, exhaustive answer:
The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know & distinguish.
If we are going to make judgements about people based on the way they use language, then they should be as rigorous as this. Or as deliberately crass as Kingsley Amis’s classification (which Hitchings does not mention) of English-speakers as “berks” and “wankers.” The “careless, coarse, crass, gross” people who do not know the rules and do not care, the berks, and their counterparts, the “prissy, fussy, priggish, prim” wankers: given a free rein, he claims, both would the kill language, one through impurity, the other through purity.
Hitchings’s chapters on the social changes that have affected the way we use language pale in comparison. He covers obscenity, nationalism, and lingua francas, even though they are not part of the same language wars as those in which Murray and Fowler fought. They feel actorless compared to his potted history of Johnson’s dictionary; he ushers in Benedict Anderson and Derrida as spokesmen for the historical movements responsible for language change, but they have not seen action on the frontlines.
The book’s range makes it a good primer for readers who are completely new to language debates. It should be mentioned, too, that Hitchings is an excellent companion when he is in thrall to some of the great custodians of the language. But books about grammar, as Hitchings himself acknowledges, are more often read by fanatics than by beginners. The squabbling and infighting between them tells us at least as much about language and its place in human life as the large structures pondered by theorists. Their quarrels over the doubling of a consonant or the emphasis on a vowel are the testing ground for serious criticism. And though a committed descriptivist may not like it, their delight in pedantry is nine-tenths of the charm of English grammar.
Laura Marsh is a writer living in London.
Laura Marsh is an Associate Editor at The New Republic.