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A strange mixture of scholarship and personal remarks - good bits superb, too sharp about his dislikes
on 18 January 2014
It's really difficult to know on what level to read or to review this book, because just as the reader thinks they're going on a fruitful journey through the author's scholarship he strikes a jarring note with a swipe (sometimes a very personal swipe) at one or more of his pet dislikes. So strong is his rhetoric that I wanted to go immediately to read up on the opposing points of view - he's more than critical of people like Chomsky and Pinker, from time to time he's contemptuous. There's too much raw emotion just below the surface of his treatment of the above-mentioned C&P for his arguments to sound authentic, and that's a pity because he covers a number of points that I didn't previously know. So I'm glad that I read it, but I'm not sure how much I've profited from the experience.
The sections that make me glad I read it? well, wherever his book sticks to doing what it says on the tin. That is, he unwinds the extraordinary ways and byways of English grammar, often introducing the viewpoint of non-native English speakers from which to look anew at those implicit rules and customs that we natives acquire without being aware of them. His discussion of - for instance - the rules for ordering English adjectives is brilliant; it's like one of those articles about number theory that makes one question the essence of 1, 2, +, and = while at the same time assuring the reader that some serious meaning remains nonetheless and that it's worthwhile to ask the questions. When the author wants to be clear, and/or entertaining, he succeeds almost all the time. For that alone, the book is very nourishing.
Which makes me wonder why his editor didn't ask him to tone down his attacks on his bêtes noires, or at least acknowledge the evidence in their favour. (It's not just C&P that he dislikes. His dislike of pseudo-grammatical preciousness and prescriptiveness is in itself much too prescriptive for comfort). In particular, the book's last chapter sets out to explore structure but spends most of its effort telling us about fights amongst the various practitioners of Linguistics (his capital initial). It made me feel uncomfortable, not least because he'd already demonstrated that he could write a really illuminating book up till this point. I didn't like his excursions into Cato the Elder and his regular 'Chomsky Delenda Est.'