If you are a Lynn Truss fan--you know the lady, the sticklerist who rants in her books ("Eats, Shoots and Leaves") about the ways English is being destroyed by its speakers and writers--then you may not want to read this book. On the other hand, you absolutely must because this is one of those I-simply-cannot-put-it-down books.
I teach writing part time at a local college. And before retiring and taking up this job in Miami with its vast population of ESL speakers, I taught high school English. And I recoiled at the misuse of so-called grammar books by far too many of my colleagues. (By the way, the best grammar book out there isn't one. But should be: "Woe Is I" by Patricia O'Conner with its simple, humorous direct approach including "comma sultra.") And this amazing work by Robert Lane Greene only confirms what I know, except not with his knowledge, about the way language evolves. I cringe at all the hyped-up media rhetoric about Hispanics taking over. In my opinion they add to the flavor of a mixture of their language with mine, which is English.
But--note that I have begun this sentence with a no-no in the eyes of some--what I have to deal with in my classes are the absolutely stupid number of "rules" these new-to-English speakers have learned. They have to wade through six thick workbooks of English grammar rules, many of which quite simply have absolutely nothing to do with how we speak and write our language when we write and speak it well. And I am one of those who is only too delighted to have "whom" take its place in the repository of words we simply do not need.
All of this is to say that if you are looking for a book that really gets into the substance of how languages have formed and how they work, they don't hesitate any longer. Greene even takes on Strunk and White, "Elements of Style." Now that takes courage, far more courage than Ms. Truss. "There is really only one way to learn good writing: through good reading and extensive writing and revising. If students in college and high school are exposed to high-quality, well-edited writing year after year, some will develop into competent and even good writers. Many will not. But writing is, ultimately, an artistic skills, not the mechanistic application of rules." (page 43)
Amen, Brother Greene! My best writers are always students who also read a lot. But yet here in this state students in public schools read very little because, after all, they have to write zillions of five-paragraph essays to pass the FCAT!
But back to E. B. White: One linguist "catches E. B. White using a 'which' to introduce a restrictive clause in the second paragraph of 'Stuart Little,' something White himself prohibits in 'Elements of Style.'" To which White would have acknowledged his "error" instead of acknowledging that it matters little whether or not a set of commas do or do not set that clause off.
And this sentence on page 112 is significant for its truth: "English has the most difficult alphabetic spelling in the world." Try explaining to Spanish speakers--remember their language is totally phonetic--"were" from "where" or "since" from "sense" to name of two of hundreds of crazy spellings.
So who knew? Who knew that the Hebrew language spoken and written in Israel today is so new as a secular spoken and written language. Certainly I did not. Dr. Greene provides the most fascinating explanation of how the holy language was taken up as a one-man cause in the late 19th century and within a few decades became the official language of Israel, ending Yiddish, what little was left after Hitler did the most of end it his the Nazi ovens.
This is just one of those books that quite clearly needs at least two more stars than the five amazon.com allows . Make it three.