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The Language Wars: A History of Proper English [Hardcover]

Henry Hitchings
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 Feb 2011

The English language is a battlefield. Since the age of Shakespeare, arguments over correct usage have been acrimonious, and those involved have always really been contesting values - to do with morality, politics and class. THE LANGUAGE WARS examines the present state of the conflict, its history and its future. Above all, it uses the past as a way of illuminating the present. Moving chronologically, the book explores the most persistent issues to do with English and unpacks the history of 'proper' usage. Where did these ideas spring from? Which of today's bugbears and annoyances are actually venerable? Who has been on the front line in the language wars?

THE LANGUAGE WARS examines grammar rules, regional accents, swearing, spelling, dictionaries, political correctness, and the role of electronic media in reshaping language. It also takes a look at such niggling concerns as the split infinitive, elocution and text messaging. Peopled with intriguing characters such as Jonathan Swift, H. W. Fowler and George Orwell as well as the more disparate figures of Lewis Carroll, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lenny Bruce, THE LANGUAGE WARS is an essential volume for anyone interested in the state of the English language today or intrigued about its future.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (3 Feb 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848542089
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848542082
  • Product Dimensions: 14.7 x 22.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 85,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'[Hitchings] writes beautiful prose, witty and succinct. His book is full of complex ideas expressed with crystal clarity ... The range of his knowledge and curiosity is remarkable ... Every paragraph contains a fascinating detail about the English language ... I recommend that you rush out to immediately buy it, or to buy it immediately, whichever you prefer.' (Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday, Five Star Review)

'This richly detailed and often delightfully combative book is a historical guide to the sometimes splenetic battles that have been fought over [English] down the centuries . . . a pleasure to read.' (Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times)

'Crisply written, amusing, informative and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the English language and its history should read it.' (Charles Moore, The Telegraph)

'Hitchings' exemplary researches and disinterested, perceptive and often witty explications, make it clear that one cannot glibly dismiss these struggles over what makes English "proper" ... Hitchings has created a fascinating, wholly readable and gratifyingly informative book.' (Financial Times)

'Agreeable and informative' (Independent)

'The Language Wars asks us to think beyond tradition, habit and deference, and to consider what we want from our words. It is a very intelligent and polite call to arms, but a call to arms nonetheless.' (Observer)

'The Language Wars takes the reader on a Cook's tour of complaints about English past and present ...' (Deborah Cameron, Guardian)

'It is a breath of fresh air (if that is the right cliché) to wander the byways of language without always being nudged to laugh at prescriptivists' foolish nostrums.' (Daily Telegraph)

'A superb survey' (Reader's Digest)

'Those who bemoan the state of literacy should turn to Henry Hitchings' history of the centuries-old battles over correct usage to disavow themselves of the notion that such complaints are anything new...The Language Wars offers a hopeful perspective on this old debate.' (Metro)

A very intelligent call to arms (The Week)

'Hitchings's three books have helped make language studies sexy' (Literary Review)

Book Description

What really is correctness? Why do people care so much about it? What is at stake in the quarrel about good and bad usage?

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine work 16 Feb 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
What a marvellous book! For anyone interested in the shaping, describing and attempted policing of the English Language this is a "must buy". Hitchings writes lucidly and entertainingly without missing out anything significant.

The book gives a potted history, not so much of the language itself as writings about the language: grammars, dictionaries, style guides, usage guides, and so on. There are chapters on American English, the spread of World Englishes and punctuation mixed in. All are well worth the effort of reading and every chapter seemed to contain something new or something that I had not considered.

One word of warning: there is a chapter on taboo words, so if any potential buyers prefer bowdlerized texts this may not be for them. Less prudish readers will be aware that ignoring such terms would be ignoring significant parts of the language.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite a White Flag 27 Mar 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This collection of essays on aspects of the English Language is probably the most accessible, readable and knowledgeable work currently available. Hitchings' erudition is riveting at every turn, and I found myself reading several chapters at once, diverted by observations which seemed to jump off the page.

That said, the author is fundamentally - like most linguists - a descriptivist; that is, he believes that language evolves by itself, and the prescriptivists who try to correct its course are (and he makes the analogy) like King Canute, doomed to failure. This policy proves revealing - of his grisly fascination for Americanisms and his dislike of Lynne Truss, among other things - but is constantly undermined by his (albeit grudging) accounts of the influence of Lindley Murray, Henry Fowler and their ilk. However, in the penultimate essay he appears to abandon all pretence to laissez-faire descriptivism, laying into politicians, advertisers and other manipulators of English for perverting the way we think. and all but joining the ranks of "grumblers, fault-finders, quibblers and mud-slingers" he earlier excoriated.

But that, Hitchings seems to realize, is intrinsic to the fraught nature of the subject. Everyone has some opinion about the ways our language is used, and if you want some provocative writing about those opinions, this book comes highly recommended.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Hitchings' title "The Language Wars" aptly sums up his impressively erudite and extremely readable account of the development of our language over the centuries, and deals not only with the emergence of early English and the battles that were fought both for and against it, but also with its modern progress. His style is easy and conversational, but he does not talk down to his readers, nor does he avoid necessary technical terms - although these are always elegantly and helpfully explained or enlarged upon.
I found the whole thing enormously enlightening, and far better than several others, whose authors evidently considered their work to be thorough and painstaking. Hitchings' book is both of these, but the effect is rather like that of a good novel; one chapter leads inexorably to the next, and I found myself reading far into the night.
This, in short, is a book for the "serious amateur" who would like to know a lot more about the study of the English Language, and how it has affected - and is still affecting - the rest of the world.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars grammar 25 Mar 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A thorough and useful review that deserves to be read and digested by every schoolchild and most politicians. The author takes a realistic and commonsense attitude to written and spoken English and sweeps away a lot of pedantic nonsense inherited from the Victorians. He is no worshipper of Fowler, and brings some fresh air into modern teenspeak as well as letting off a blast against administrative jargon. The author has a refreshing outlook that brings a welcome optimism into the study of English. It is also thoroughly readable.
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