16 January 2008

Proper Words in Proper Places

Although I have a scrillion other things competing for my attention — several overdue articles and reviews, a few conference papers, and an encroaching semester for which I really have to prepare — today I'm turning my attention to my next trade book, provisionally called Proper Words in Proper Places: Correct English from Shakespeare to Safire. If all goes according to plan, it'll appear in autumn 2009 from Walker & Co., the folks who published Becoming Shakespeare, my abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary, and Samuel Johnson's Insults.

Here's how I describe Proper Words in the prospectus:

Many are passionate about proper English; few know the idea of proper English itself has a history. But today’s debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools or dangling participles in the Times—make much more sense in a historical context. Proper Words therefore looks back over the history of Modern English and traces the notion that some versions of the language are “correct” and others “wrong.” It tells the story of the people who tried to “fix” or “improve” this messy language of ours.

My plan is to trace some of the history of the idea of proper English from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. No one has written a book like this for a popular audience — there are scholarly books like The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, and most histories of the English language spend a chapter or two grousing about the evil "eighteenth-century grammarians" who made a hash of things. In fact things are more complicated than most writers would make it seem. (An amusing way to pass a few minutes is to do a Google search for "18th-century grammarians" and to count the occurrences of words like prejudice, ignorance, and arbitrary.)

Proper Words is my attempt to tell the story with the richness it deserves, and to try to put the idea of correctness in a context. To that end, I'm planning an introduction followed by eleven chapters, as follows:
  • The Age in Which I Live: Dryden Revises His Works
  • Fixing the Language: Swift Demands an Academy
  • Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Johnson Writes a Dictionary
  • The Art of Using Words Properly: Lowth and Priestley Lay Down the Law
  • The People in These States: Webster Americanizes the Language
  • Words, Words, Words: Murray Surveys Anglicity
  • The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: Shaw Rewrites the ABCs
  • Tools of the Trade: Strunk & White Show the Way
  • Sacking the Citadel?: Webster's Third Stokes the Flames
  • Expletive Deleted: Moralists Police the Borders
  • Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future
Since I'll be teaching a course on the history of the language this semester at Ruckers-Nork, the subject will be much on my mind. I'll occasionally provide updates here, as I work on individual chapters. Meanwhile, I'll be glad to hear from people who have ideas about the topic.

14 January 2008

Best Party Ever

What's not to love about a story that begins this way?

Youth, 16, faces £10,000 bill - and livid parents - after 'best party ever'
It caused almost £10,000 of damage, involved mass underage drinking and required 30 police officers, a police helicopter and the police dog squad to break up. But it was still "the best party ever", according to the Australian teenager currently under investigation for throwing a raucous bash when his parents went away on holiday.

11 January 2008

Absurd, Depressing, Disheartening, Dumb

The smartest comment I've seen to date on Hillary Clinton's near-tears moment:

How absurd. How depressing and disheartening and just plain dumb this whole business is. — Judith Warner, New York Times.

Yeah, that's about right.

09 January 2008

User's Guide Available

My latest book, The English Language: A User's Guide, is now available from Amazon.com. It's a revised and much expanded version of the guide I've had on-line for donkey's years — nearly as long as there's been a World Wide Web.

I originally wrote the thing for students in my own classes, and university students are still my most important audience. But I've also written it for business writers, people who find themselves expected to write but not confident about grammar, style, usage, mechanics and so on. Here's how one reviewer describes it:

Anyone who spends time at all reading or writing, whether for purpose or pleasure, will delight in The English Language: A Users Guide. Lynch’s book is not just informative and gracefully written but also it’s downright fun to read. I learned more in ten minutes grazing Lynch’s book than I would have in an hour plodding through just about any other writers’ guide, plus I found myself laughing out loud in the process! It’s a pleasure to recommend this wonderful book."
— James Lake, Louisiana State University

So, just in case my expected $1.2 billion doesn't materialize, perhaps I'll be able to make a buck or two on the guide. If you teach, bully your students into buying it. Hell, make 'em buy two — it's good for 'em. Builds character.

04 January 2008

God Bless Britney

When I teach eighteenth-century literature, I often find myself glossing terms modern students don't know. This past semester I came across the word dissolute in one of the readings, and was grasping for a suitable definition: "Leading a wild life, without much regard for morality, seeming to have his or her life falling apart...." It was clear I wasn't really helping anyone understand the word.

And then inspiration struck: "Y'know — like Britney Spears." All of a sudden it made perfect sense to my undergrads.

God bless Britney.

02 January 2008

The Sky Is Falling

My old pal Al Filreis has been writing a smart blog for the last six months or so. He's recently written a post titled "Is E-mail Ruining Writing?" Some choice extracts:

Perhaps a dozen times in the past four years I've been asked by radio shows (among them Day to Day and a live talk-radio show in Seattle) and print journalists ... to talk about why and how email and other digital writing forms (they especially want me to talk about IM) have ruined writing and reading for the new generations. ... They never assume that I might disagree with the premise. I tell them that they really don't want to talk to me because it's my view that writing has improved since the rise of electronic mail and since typing at our keyboards, of all sizes (even the tiniest), has become one of the two or three activities we do most often daily. ... The folks who want an English professor to comment on this expect me to whinge and express fear of writing's demise. Instead I express excitement about hope about the immediate future of writing.

I think that's right. Plenty of electronic communication is rotten and subliterate, but such has always been the way. The good news is that people who would never have put pen to paper in the days of hard copy, and who never owned a typewriter, now spend hours every day trying to communicate through the written word.

Beginners are rarely eloquent, and many have a long way to go before they write powerful or graceful prose. But I can only rejoice to see so many people getting practical experience in writing. Rather than lamenting the disappearance of the good old days, I'd like to see those concerned about young people's writing try to take advantage of students' passion for putting things in words, even when they're abbreviated and misspelled.